If you’re in and around Owen Sound this summer, you might have seen us kicking around a bit longer than we’d anticipated. We’d hoped to be hitting Canada’s East Coast right about now, but instead find ourselves home awaiting test results.
I seem to have picked up some kind of mosquito-borne something in Nicaragua. First came the fever, then the headaches and excruciating joint pain that hasn’t let up yet enough to make me go, “Yeah, I’d love to sleep on the ground in a tent tonight!”
Yes, I get the irony of trying to take time away to get healthy but coming home sicker than before. To be honest, though, we probably weren’t in the best place for getting fit and healthy. Nicaragua, while certainly beautiful, was incredibly humid–at least, in the place and season we experienced. It rained each day, sometimes a torrential downpour, but never really cut through the humidity like a good summer storm here in Ontario does.
And the mosquitoes… they were relentless. All day, all night, every day for a month. It never stopped. Bug spray, netting, citronella candles, mosquito coils–all proved useless against the vicious suckers that left me covered in hundreds of bites.
Trevor and I both had sunburns early on and learned our lessons about going out between 10am-3pm. If you wanted to take a walk, you had better be up early. Mid-day was for siestas and man, were those hammocks ever inviting.
Pretty much the last thing you’re going to do in those conditions is intentionally work up a sweat.
But it wasn’t just the place in Nicaragua that was the issue. I don’t think we were mentally and emotionally in a place where we were ready to tackle a new healthy eating and exercise regime.
We were exhausted.
We both feel like we’ve been running for two years straight. There’s something to be said about taking a bit of time to crash so you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and eventually hit the ground running again.
Maybe we haven’t given wellness our all yet, but then, this is new territory for us, too. I swear, I was 18 just yesterday. We know that age is just a number, but the last couple of years have really left us each feeling our age (and then some).
The creaks and cracks have gotten a little more pronounced, and we sure don’t bounce back from a night out like we used to. When did that happen?
I’m not sure, but it’s never been something that people in my family have paid particular attention to. We aren’t runners, or even walkers. We’re farmers and workers. In fact, we work ourselves to the point that we don’t want to do anything after work but kick back and chill. It’s been that way as far back as I can remember, right back to when Grandpa Hewitson used to come in from the farm to wash up for dinner and watch the news over Grandma’s awesome cooking. I might have been out with him (probably causing more havoc than help) as he picked rocks, checked and mended fences, and fed cattle.
After dessert (he always let me have a bit extra, with a wink and a grin), he’d adjust the giant satellite dish in the yard and settle in for Grand Ole Opry or some such. Grandma went to the upstairs lounge to knit and gab on the phone.
At home, my sisters and I snuck what playtime we could after school, then raced home for dinner and chores. Often, that meant a whirlwind of apple peeling and dough mixing and packaging and dishes, as we helped mom get ready for the Saturday Farmer’s Market.
There was no going to the gym.
We didn’t do yoga or pilates.
We ate meat and potatoes and worked our asses off. Go for a walk? No thanks, we did that all day long.
We don’t anymore, though… I work at a computer. That’s definitely a problem, and it’s a lifestyle that sort of snuck up on me as my writing became more successful and the need to do manual jobs like cooking and serving lessened. One day, I realized I hardly move at all anymore. Trevor used to walk home from Stone Tree after work whenever he could (it’s a good 4km stroll) but that ended too, after his employment there did.
Now, my Dad worked his ass off, but he kicked back a bit differently. He couldn’t relax without a frosty, smooth bottle in one hand and a Players Filter in the other.
Still, it never occurred to any of us that my dad’s lifestyle (as awful as we all knew it was) would actually kill him.
It didn’t register with him, either. That was clear at the end, when he still wasn’t accepting of the inevitable and sought our reassurances that it was just a minor setback; that he was feeling pretty crappy, but it had to get better, because it always had before.
He’d just gotten his farm the way he wanted it. He was fully off-grid, independent with solar, propane and a woodstove, surrounded by conservation authority land.
My dad tried to change his lifestyle for as long as I can remember, to turn things around, and it was usually precipitated by one health crisis or another. Because that’s when we’re really forced to stop and think about it, aren’t we? Your cholesterol and liver function and that tiny bump you might have felt once or twice in the shower but really aren’t sure of–maybe it’ll go away on its own?–these things really aren’t top of mind until they become a problem.
Until they demand your attention.
And by then, you really have to hope that whatever it is, it’s just messing around and giving you a warning sign. My dad’s first warning sign that he was being too hard on his liver came early in his 20s, when he brewed up a particularly special batch of apple cider back in the Greenock Swamp. He ended up hospitalized when, as the (MacDonald family folklore) goes, he “blew holes in his liver.”
His mid to late 20s brought angina and the beginning of an affair with the bottle that would dominate the rest of his years. His 30s and early 40s were marred by a plethora of injuries that should have made anyone stop cold and rethink their life choices.
He nearly took off his own head and lost the use of a few fingers for a while (to a chainsaw, in an accident that unfortunately happened in front of my then-9-year-old sister, who was very nearly drafted to drive him to the hospital. His “good sense” prevailed and he drove drunk, one-handed, with her riding shotgun, instead). Late one night, he smeared the downtown Tara sidewalk with blood and “broke his face” after crashing his 10-speed on a munchies run. Another night, he tried to fight a group of 8-10 men much, much younger, bigger and better armed than he was.
All involved the better part of a 24-pack of Blue (or that terrible, cheaper substitute they offered for way too long: Wildcat). On his best/our worst nights, he partied with Johnny Walker.
Once his drywall business wrecked his back, Dad went to work at the Formosa brewery. Sure, it was heavy lifting. But at least they got a case to take home at the end of the week.
His first heart attack came in his early 50s. I thought he did well in the cardiac unit in Walkerton, so it was doubly disappointing that when we took our first walk on the hospital grounds, he asked me for a cigarette. Worse, I gave him one. I was smoking then, and he knew it. I never did learn how to say no to him.
I quit smoking a few years ago now, but when I went to stay with him this past winter, his illness eventually progressed to the point he couldn’t smoke on his own anymore.
At first, he could light the smoke but might fumble, so I had to keep an eye on him. One night, he dropped his cigarette in his lap and couldn’t retrieve it. I had to ask him not to smoke anymore unless I was sitting with him and never to smoke when I was sleeping, out of fear he’d burn the place down.
Three days before he passed away, my dad brought a cigarette to his lips but couldn’t grasp the lighter. My aunt and sister and I all looked away, trying to give him a moment. He cursed and hung his head. He was emaciated, shrunken. Vivid purple and blue streaks mottled his back; he’d caught a glimpse of it in the mirror the day before as we changed his shirt. Asked us to make sure we separated the clothes out and were careful with the wash, as his shirt was bleeding colour onto his skin.
How could I tell him it was his lungs bleeding out? That his pack-and-a-half a day habit that had spanned over forty years was to blame, but go on and have one more cigarette, Dad? Whether or not that’s where the cancer started (it was everywhere by the end), that’s what got him.
He’d started smoking when he was ten years old and as with so many things, he just didn’t know any better. It’s not an excuse. It just is.
I took the cigarette and lit it for him, holding it to his lips for each puff.
Yes, I was ashamed. But it didn’t matter by then. At that point, the objective was to keep him comfortable. He wasn’t about to quit smoking over some revelation about his health just then.
The truly sick thing is how much I still love the smell of burning tobacco. The taste on my lips will forever remind me of that last smoke of his and it makes me sick to my stomach. But that smell is my childhood, his weekend visits while they still happened, every soothing break from stressful work… it’s so many things.
The last standing of the old cabins back at the farm.
Once upon a time, the prospect of developing life-changing health issues was a cautionary tale. We had plenty of time to start eating better, sleeping regularly and getting exercise. But to see someone’s lifestyle choices manifested in such a gross and traumatic way that they could take a man from full-time work to diagnose to death in about a year… well, it stops you in your tracks.
(I understand how privileged we are to have been fully able bodied and almost completely ignorant of our health until now. We sincerely apologize to friends and readers who have had to cope with youth, parenthood, employment and all the rest with health and mobility issues for taking our health for granted.)
And you know, we managed to get away from that for a bit! That’s not to say we forgot about everything here while we were gone, but it gave us some space and time to start to digest it all without the onslaught of more new shit being piled on our plates on the daily. I don’t feel like we did everything we set out to do there, but that’s okay… we get to keep going and try again some more.
Sauble Beach, July 25 2017.
Being forcibly grounded for a while here at home is actually pretty great. We just happen to have grown up in one of the most naturally beautiful areas in Ontario and still plan on spending as much warm weather time here as we can. We hadn’t planned on being here quite this long this time, but being forcibly grounded is giving us time to slow down again and think about how we can get to that other grounded place: the well balanced and sensible one.
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