I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
This is a re-blogged post: I first published this post in January of 2018. It has become one of the most popular posts of the hundreds I’ve posted since I started in 2012-13, viewed almost 500 times in 2020 alone. Somehow I find it’s relevant to my last post. Just after my mother died on January 13th, 2018 I posted a comment and a few days later I posted this one. Originally it was just called It turns out we die from the feet up. If you read this post in 2018 you might want to skip reading it now. I think it’s worth reading again.
[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive around the topic of death and dying up close.]
It turns out we die from the feet up. Well, that’s not strictly true in every circumstance, some people die from a bullet to the head, but it has an element of truth to it. As I noted in a previous post, my amazing mom died last week, on the 13th, very near midnight. She would have been 94 on April 4th. I wrote before that she died a good death, but that’s not what this blog post is about.
For three days or so before mom died, we held a vigil by her side. I have many siblings but two of my sisters were especially attentive towards our mom and visited her virtually every day at her care facility in Coquitlam. They were especially present during this vigil, but most of my other siblings showed up at one time or another as did some of their children and even grandchildren. We spent many hours in mom’s room and out in the hallway. Some of my sisters (and a brother-in-law or two) spent nights by my mother’s side too.
My mother was 93 when she died. Her story is really astounding and is one of sacrifice, caring, selflessness and dedication. She married my father on January 28th, 1946. He had 5 daughters from his first marriage. His wife died in childbirth as she was giving birth to her first son. Because my father had to work to support the family I assume he put out the call for help and my mother, 21 at the time, answered that call. She moved into dad’s house to look after the 5 children and to do all the housework too. Long story short, my mom soon after married my father and they proceeded to have 10 more children, I being the oldest. I’m 71. I was born in 1947, a year after my parents were married. My eldest sister from dad’s first marriage is about to turn 83.
Well, it turns out that although we are a loving and caring family we are also prone to irreverence. We love to laugh and tease each other but we also care about and respect each other, despite our differences. As my mother lay dying, we got to wondering just how the staff knew that she was in fact near death. We asked questions and the nurses and care aides responded in very matter of fact ways. How can we tell when someone is near death? I had heard that when the kidneys shut down that’s a sure sign that the end is near but in this case, mom had not had food or liquids for 2 or 3 days. It would be difficult to tell if and when her kidneys shut down. All this time, mom’s pulse appeared to be quite strong and although her breathing was irregular, it seemed to be consistent.
One of the nurses then told us that it’s possible to roughly assess how long it will be before someone takes their final breath by looking at their legs. When the toes and feet get cold and a line of blotchy skin appears, that means that it won’t be long. Now, nurses and care aides have a lot of experience with having people die on their watch. It would be foolish to ignore what they have to say.
After that, we proceeded to periodically lift the blankets off of mom’s feet to see how her toes and feet were doing. We didn’t notice any special coldness at first. Even on the day of the 13th, it didn’t look as if her feet had changed much in colour or temperature. We often checked on mom’s feet to see if they were getting colder or if the line of blotchy skin was going up her leg. The nurse said that when the line gets to the knee, that’s it. Death slowly creeps up our legs. Of course, there was no question of mom coming out of this crisis alive, so it was just a waiting game now.
I left the care facility around 4:30 PM on the 13th so I could have dinner with my daughter and her family in Vancouver. We half expected mom to still be alive in the morning when we returned to the care facility. I was getting exhausted too and needed a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, that day was the last one I would see my mother alive. In the early morning minutes of the 14th I got calls from one of my sisters and a brother-in-law telling me that mom had passed away, but my phone was on vibrate and I missed their calls. At breakfast, I learned that my mother had passed away a few hours earlier. Within two hours of her death, the people from the funeral home came around and took her body away. Shortly after that, some of my family members cleaned out her room of all of her personal belongings leaving no trace of her ever having been there.
I called my sister and we talked about what happened as mom got closer and closer to taking her last breath. It so happens that the nurse was correct. Mom’s legs had indeed gotten cold and blotchy as her heart became too weak to pump blood to her extremities. By the time she died, her legs were cold up to her knees and her legs were blotchy.
So, along with the grief and sadness that we all felt as we watched our mother/grandmother/great grandmother/mother-in-law die, we learned about how the process evolves.
Right up to her last moments our wonderful caring mother had something to teach us.
This is not one of my regular myeloma posts. I told part of the story I’ve written below in a February 2015 post. Ever since then I’ve wanted to expand on it so as to tease out some truths about the events surrounding the death of my father’s first wife and his subsequent marriage to my mother. History and biography are mostly fabrication, the invention of the past on the basis of one-sided, biased information, conjecture and, of course, ideology around actual facts like the time and date of certain deaths and other events. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting and related somehow to the truth. Anyway, without prejudice, I offer the following:
Part 1: My father
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they seemed so out of character for him. He teased us children mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated impulses that led to his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly.
From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the dread and fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.
He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five-year-old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him all the sordid details of my great misdeed, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I needed to be punished. I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time although I wasn’t enthralled with the idea.
My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork; it was because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta where he grew up and he needed to take care of one of his brothers. I don’t recall he ever mentioning it, but my older sisters told the story of why he had to look after one of his many brothers a little differently than was told to us much later at a family gathering in 1989 by one of our many uncles, I can’t recall which one. As my father had told the story to my sisters, he hurt his back so badly as a child that he could barely walk making it impossible for him to trek the three miles back and forth to school in Fort Kent every week day. Eventually we were to learn a different version of the events surrounding my father’s story. As my uncle told the story my father and his brothers were roughhousing one day in the farmyard and my father jumped on one of his brother’s back so hard that it virtually crippled him. My father’s punishment for that offence would be that henceforth he was to carry his brother around with him on his back wherever he went. He packed my uncle around for years. My uncle eventually fully recovered from his back injury and was able to walk on his own. Whatever the truth, my father did not attend school much as a child. He was no less intelligent because of it but his inability to read hampered his career during his working life. Ultimately, although we never discussed it, I forgave him his desire to save face by concocting a version of events that allowed him a more morally acceptable role in the accident that led to his functional illiteracy. Sometimes lies it seems are easier to live with than the potential opprobrium that might ensue with people knowing the truth.
My father seldom drank alcohol and never smoked but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to junior management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy. He was active in parish life and in the Knight’s of Columbus. He also fathered fifteen children.
Part 2 Childbirth and death
I don’t know if what I am about to write is entirely true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy twenty nine year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the delivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life but I was later to find out that this was a fabrication. One of my older sisters told me in a telephone conversation after my father had died that friends and family, even nurses at St. Mary’s hospital, donated blood but to no avail. I don’t know that to be true, but I expect it’s closer to the truth than the first account I heard of about no money for blood.
Just imagining what my father had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with sorrow, anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. First he had to break the news to his daughters that their mother would not be coming home. Then he had to find a way to look after his daughters while still going to work. He may have believed that the whole thing was God’s will. I really don’t know. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.
Part 3. An old photograph
I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1943 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my half sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. She is the only one of my siblings who is no longer alive. She died in 2004. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1943. In any case, looking at the photo, it doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger (the name they intended to call their new baby if it had been a boy), but she may have been.
There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warm spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.
In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my half sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old. She has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.
Who could know that when this picture was taken my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would soon be his new wife. So, here we have my father flanked by his two wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would soon be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.
My father and Yvonne moved to British Columbia in 1936. As it turns out they made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time as did my father and it was the nun/nurses at the hospital who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother-to-be to come help look after the children while he went to work in a local sawmill. That wasn’t a stretch because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to British Columbia during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of lumber mill related work so he was able to find employment. My mother was equally resourceful and unafraid of hard work.
When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother-to-be if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother, who had been a surrogate mother to my father’s five daughters, had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.
Now my older sisters, really my half sisters, had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest half sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.
I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on. Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.
After their wedding in Alberta on January 29th, 1946, my parents wasted no time in getting on with the business of making babies. They were to have ten in all, but I was the first. I was born on January 4th, 1947, not even a year after my parents married. If my father’s first wife, Yvonne, had survived, I would not exist. Life’s like that. What I did get was my brother’s name. My half brother, had he survived, would have been known as Roger. That’s the name on the tombstone in the cemetery in New Westminster that marks the grave of he and his mother, Yvonne. So, I carry the name of my dead brother. It seems strange to say, but had he lived, my father’s life would probably not have been that different than how it actually turned out.
[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]
Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.
In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.
Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.
I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿
In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.
Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.
So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.
Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.
Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””
My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):
The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’
Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.
Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.
Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.
Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.
Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.
So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!
✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.
My oncologist called this past Wednesday to discuss changing my chemo cocktail. The one I had been on for less than a week caused a very bad rash around my whole midsection along with a mild fever. So, I stopped taking that set of meds and am now waiting for word from the pharmacy here at the hospital telling me that my new meds have arrived. I’ve got appointments lined up for the first week of December, but I may be called to come in earlier. It’s all par for the course. Hurry up and wait.
Thing is, this new set of meds has caused some pretty significant side effects for a couple of people I know with myeloma. We’ll have to keep a close watch on symptoms, especially those related to peripheral neuropathy. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the new meds but then again, I’m not too sure what the alternatives would be. I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if I turned down any and all chemo. I know that there are drugs that are more palliative than chemo and I seriously wonder how many more years of good quality life I could get out of benign neglect rather than with aggressive intervention. These are just things I think about late at night when I’m falling asleep along with visualizing my death bed.
I’ve been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Natural Causes. She’s a couple of years older than me and had a malignant tumour removed from a breast some time ago. She’s fit, she’s healthy but she also writes that: “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die.” She means that she’s had a good life, a fulfilling life, which is much more than is afforded many of us. She notes that the military considers eighteen year olds old enough to die and that there is no ‘best before date’ stamped on our asses. Some political leaders lead well into their eighties and nineties. That said, there is a time, when we reach seventy or so years of age when our obituary is likely to read “died of natural causes” than anything else. At a certain age, she argues, there is no need for an explanation for dying. It’s okay to die. Of course we should expect to die. Dying is as natural as being born although we generally consider it a travesty and a high order insult to life. I visualize myself dying, but I’m not convinced that the visualization can ever be very accurate. The closest I can come to visualizing the end of my life is when I’ve had a general anesthetic. Under a general anesthetic, the first drug they administer puts one under, makes one unconscious. If that’s the way I’m going to go, I can live with that. I watched as they put our last dog Wilco down a year ago August. First the sedative, then the lethal dose of whatever it is that kills. That kind of end would be fine with me. If I have to do it, and I don’t see any way out, this is what works for me.
Pain is an entirely other matter. I’ve had too much of that in my life and I don’t want to die under a heavy blanket of pain. Some pain would be alright, but nothing overwhelming. No pain would be the best, but that’s asking a lot of this aging, crumbling body to deliver. So, I’m willing to compromise and accept some pain when my dying time comes. I watched my mother as she lay dying in her nursing home bed almost two years ago now. She had Alzheimer’s and was unable to communicate at all verbally. She did communicate her pain, however. She was under high doses of morphine but we could tell when the morphine would wear off because she would get more and more agitated. I have no idea what she was experiencing, but I have the strong sense that it wasn’t at all pleasant. I was not there in her room when she actually took her last breath but as my sister recalls it, it was all fairly anti-climactic. Chances are very good that I won’t follow my mother’s example in death. For one thing, with myeloma I’m not likely to live long enough, and for another thing, I’ll probably still be sentient and able to make some decisions myself about my own death, unlike what happened to my mother. My mother was a very fine mother, cheeky as all get out sometimes and able to maintain a sense of humour before some pretty daunting odds at times. Dementia robbed her of end of life quality of life. That’s a shame. One of my sisters died a few years ago. She was four years older then me and had lung cancer. She was sentient for most of the time or her dying, but I wasn’t there when she finally gave up her last breath. I was a ferry ride away and unable to make it. She died a half hour before I got to the hospice centre where she ‘lived’. I know one thing for sure. She was pumped full of morphine for some time before she died and that effectively shut down her ability to decide anything.
Lately I’ve been experimenting a little with my pain meds. I’m on a large dose of hydromorphone (not related to morphine- a lot stronger, actually) taking two 1mg pills every four hours. I tried to back off some and take a lower dose every four hours for a day. I felt I could probably manage that because my pain was pretty much under control. Mistake! My pain is under control because I’m taking shitloads of hydromorphone. When I tried to back off, pain started to come back in my neck, ribs, right pelvic area, legs and shoulders. I knew that if I didn’t resume my twelve mg pill load a day that I would soon be completely incapacitated and bedridden. The decision was a no-brainer, but I was hoping for a better outcome.
One of the issues, of course, is that I haven’t really started treatments yet for multiple myeloma. I’ve been diagnosed and all that, but I haven’t had any chemotherapy to mitigate the effects of the disease, so it may be that in a few weeks or months and I go into remission that I’ll be able to back off my pain meds successfully. Wow, that would be cool. For now, I’ll continue ingesting lots of hydromorphone and maybe indulge in a beer or two, maybe even a tiny bit of scotch. It’s okay, all my specialists say a couple of beer are ok. I didn’t ask them about the scotch.
One (or more) of my readers here have suggested that I don’t swear anywhere near enough in my narrative. Well, fuck that! I’ll swear if I want to, swear if I want to, swear if I want to. You’d swear too, if it happened to you! (Figure out the song this is based on). Fuck!
Alright, I have a confession to make. I’m not always the most reasonable person around. The photo above is of our fifty-year-old, sixteen foot “Huron” canoe outfitted with outriggers, a mast and sail, along with a deep-cycle battery and an electric motor, and paddles of course. First off, it’s a canoe, not a sailboat, but it did sail very well in moderate to somewhat higher winds. It’s tied here to a stump on Buttle Lake near Ralph River Provincial Campground where we recently spent a few days. The lake was relatively calm. We probably paddled and used the motor to get to this spot not far away from the campground.
On another day, however, we went out in relative calm and while we were out there, the wind blew up. It often does in the afternoons on Buttle Lake. We sailed very quickly to a spot down the lake called Auger Point, a three-kilometre run. Getting back from there was anything but pleasant. We should have known better. Happily, we had the motor that I cranked to full power but even with that we had to paddle at ramming speed to get back to the river mouth where we kept the boat tied up, maybe a kilometre to our camp site. That was one tiring run home. It would have been different had we been able to sail closer to the wind, but with the sail we had and the lack of a leeboard, we were in for a rough upwind fight. Carolyn and I are experienced canoeists and at no time did I feel like we were in trouble, but paddling as hard as we could was feasible even ten years ago, not so much now that I’m 72 and Carolyn is handicapped by arthritis in her hands. Still, we are strong paddlers and we made it without swearing and berating ourselves too much. Now, having done this once and also having promised ourselves to never do it again, what do we do? We go out there again on another day and get caught in the snottiest wind and wave conditions I think I’ve ever seen on the lake. What can I say? Again, we went out on a day that promised to be benign so we headed up the lake looking for a nice place to swim. We paddled down to a bay maybe four kilometers from the campground but there was someone on the beach playing music and fishing from shore. So, we headed down and across the lake to a bay still some distance from the campground where we knew we could skinny dip. As we enjoyed the beautiful lake water and the most enjoyable swim, the lake decided to turn against us, and the wind started blowing strongly from the north. We set out with the motor at half throttle, but we soon had to up that to full throttle and full on paddle to boot. Well, we’ve had some situations in the past where we paddled as hard as we could against a wind without making much headway at all. But we were young then and had much more energy and stamina than we do now. Coming around the point close to the campground we were hit with two-foot chop. That was fine as long as we were able to paddle directly into the wind, but that was not possible as we rounded the point moving east towards the campground. We were abreast to the wind, paddling as hard as we could with the assistance of the motor, and we were being beaten hard by the waves to the point where we started taking on water from the port side. Sensing that we probably couldn’t make it back to the river’s mouth where we would have preferred to leave the boat, we turned the boat downwind and took her into shore on a muddy, unpleasant part of the lakeshore, but still within easy walking distance to our campsite. That’s where she stayed overnight.
The next morning, we took her around to the river’s mouth. We were exhausted, especially me, and I hurt everywhere. Silly us. After that episode, we got reasonable and didn’t do it again. Actually, we got our best swim of our stay on Buttle Lake a couple of days later with no trouble.
The family joined us last Thursday and that was great, but I felt a pain in my right side and shoulder that was getting worse and worse. There’s no doubt in my mind that fighting the extreme winds on Buttle not once but twice contributed significantly to my injury. I was definitely injured. The pain got so bad (pushing 9.5 out of 10) that I was very relieved to know that I had some T3s in my toiletry bag. I took two and felt hardly any relief. Later, I took two more along with some CBD and THC (I have a prescription for them). I managed to sleep fitfully although some people might suggest I was not sleeping as much as in an altered state of mind. The next day the pain had not attenuated at all, and we had to leave the campsite and head home. I couldn’t help pack up at all and my son-in-law was conscripted to drive the truck home towing our old eighteen-foot Holidaire trailer. I could barely sit still on the way home, having to shift my weight often to try to lessen the pain. The drive home was uneventful, but I still hurt, easily pushing 6 out of 10.
After being home for a bit and still at the end of my rope trying to deal with pain that prevented me from even taking a deep breath, I took two ibuprophen, went to bed for an hour or so and got up feeling fine. A miraculous recovery! I would have taken ibuprophen a lot earlier, but I was counselled in 2002 after my left kidney was removed because of cancer that I should avoid anti-inflammatory meds. I didn’t take any until this past weekend and just took two more a few minutes ago. The meds are still keeping the pain at bay, but I’m loathe to keep taking anti-inflammatory meds like ibuprophen because they are hard on the kidneys. So, tomorrow I call my doctor and make an appointment to see if there are any alternatives to ibuprophen I can take that might help mitigate acute pain. I’m used to chronic pain, but the acute pain brought on by the foolishness in our canoe was untouched by acetaminophen, even with codeine, and even supplemented with CBD and THC. My problem seemed to me clearly one of muscular inflammation. It’s clear that I need a solution to deal with acute pain because I can’t promise to always be reasonable in the future. My family was extremely supportive, and I love it for that, but I feel that I need to pull my own weight too. I will not always have my family there to support me if I get into unreasonable trouble again. I need good meds too!
I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.
Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.
All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.
The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.
I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.
Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.
Actually I’ve watched all of our dogs die except two. The only two we didn’t watch die were Little One and Chitka. Little One because she was no longer in our care. It was a long time ago and we had to give her up because where we were moving to wouldn’t have her. With Chitka, neither Carolyn nor I had could go in when he was euthanized. Too painful. All the others, Cedric, Oren, Max and recently, Wilco, all died at the hands of a vet with us present. They were all old and ready to go but that never makes it any easier. None of them did us the favour or dying in their sleep at home.
On August 3rd of this year, we took Wilco to the vet for one last time but not before we took him down to the beach in Royston and for a little drive around town. I still think about him every day, remembering his goofiness. He loved the Royston beach and used to chase his ball there for as long as we’d throw it for him. He and his ball were inseparable for the first seven years we had him.
After that, he lost interest, we suspect because he was in a lot of pain and it just wasn’t fun anymore. He even stopped chasing cats and rabbits about 18 months ago.
He was probably sixteen years old and couldn’t walk anymore. I had to carry him into the car and lift him out. The vet staff took him into the clinic. Our vet, Carol Champion checked him out and agreed with our decision to have him put down. A few minutes later, as he lay in his usual position on the floor she gave him a sedative. When she was certain he was sedated she injected him with what I think was pentobarbital. It took less than a minute and I noticed he wasn’t breathing anymore. I stroked his back a few times and gave him a pat on the head but he was gone. Carolyn and I were very upset but the staff at the clinic was super and so supportive. I find it very hard not to cry on these occasions so I just let it happen. I miss him a lot.
Having Wilco with us for 10 years or so, watching him with his ball, stalking the fish in the aquarium and chasing bears on the logging roads and on camping trips makes it hard to let him go. He was family.
I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. If I’m in a lot of pain and immobile and as old as Wilco (relatively speaking) I’d be quite happy to die like he did, surrounded by caring people not willing to watch him suffer anymore.
After he was euthanized, he was taken to a pet crematorium somewhere north of Courtenay located on a working farm where he joined a number of other pets to be cremated together and have their ashes spread out on the fields.
Not all animals have the idyllic life Wilco lived, nor the peaceful, loving death. Of course every living thing is on a death trajectory. That’s no surprise. Essentially, living and dying are the same process. That’s one of the main reason we are so conflicted as a species around life and death. We fear life because we know it will bring us death. Our culture, our politics, our everything are aimed at eliminating threats, imagined or real, to our ‘lives’. We insist that our deaths must be meaningful or we deny death altogether.
I’ll get into a long diatribe into the essence of life and death later, in another series of blog posts although you’ll find the archives in this blog full of references to death denial. Suffice it to say for now that life must consume life. Up to this time, life on this planet has been the mutual devouring of species. Can that change? Should we be more ‘humane’ in how we raise and kill other species for our own consumption? Does it matter how long a calf lives before it’s slaughtered for us? Does it matter how much pain and suffering we inflict on other species in the name of scientific research or simply to grace our dinner plates? Is life really just suffering? For now, I’ll just leave you with these questions. I may offer up answers, at least tentative ones, to these questions in future posts. Stay tuned.
I haven’t written in these ‘pages’ for a while because I’ve been working on my ‘art’ blog and getting ready for a printmaker’s show on October 27th and 28th in Cumberland at The Convoy Club where 10 printmakers including me are showing our works and offering them up for sale. Check out my other blog at: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com. There’s a page on it that includes most of my prints.
[Just a note about printmaking: the works offered up in this show include relief prints (woodcuts, linocuts), intaglio prints (drypoint and etchings), collographs, and serigraphs (silkscreening). All of the prints are hand made. No digital prints allowed. All of the work is complex, but some is more complex to execute than others. For example, one of my pieces called Van Duesen Dead Ivy is multi-stepped in its making. It starts with a drawing I did of ivy that I was particularly struck by on a trip to Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. It had been growing up a large fir tree and got very large before someone cut the vines off at the bottom of the tree in order to save the fir tree from being choked by the offending ivy. My pencil drawing was then transferred to a 15X20 inch copper plate that had been coated with resist. Resist is a material that prevents the areas covered by it from being etched by ferric chloride. I had to transfer every line, every feature of my drawing to the copper using a variety of sharp metal tools. It’s not necessary to dig into the copper at this point, just remove the resist from selected lines and areas so that the ferric chloride can etch the copper. Once the copper has had its bath in the ferric chloride, it’s ready for printing. Printing itself is a very physical activity. It requires spreading ink on the plate then wiping all of it off again. Well, not all of it. Only the ink that has not settled where the acid has etched away the copper and where the plate needs to remain white. The ink is wiped off the plate with newsprint, a physically demanding task for a plate this big. Once that’s done, the plate is placed on a press bed, paper is placed on top of the print followed by a sheet of newsprint than three blankets. If all goes well, a print is born. If all does not go well, it’s back to the drawing board… The ‘art’ cards I’ve made for this show are very simple linocut prints but each is still made by hand. I should do a YouTube video showing the process of etching but there’s a lot of them out there already. Still, that’s no excuse. There’s a lot of blogs out there too yet I still do this.]
Printmaking, particularly intaglio printmaking, requires heavy presses so I didn’t start printmaking until I had access to a printmaking studio at North Island College. Most of the ‘art’ work I have done over the years involves painting. I have done many paintings and drawings over the years. I make prints now, but I also draw using pencil and pen, I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour and I’ve done a bit of sculpting in wood. I’ve been drawing and painting since the 1970s; printmaking and sculpting are more recent additions to my repertoire. I’ve been printmaking for a mere 30 years or so and sporadically at that. Art work has not been a central part of my life until recently.
My main adult occupation was as a college sociology instructor. That paid the bills. Writing has been a large part of my career too. I wrote television scripts for two Knowledge Network telecourses for which I was the instructor. I wrote all kinds of research reports and manuals. My ‘art’ has been with me a long time, and now that I’m retired from teaching I can spend a lot more time at it, but I could never have made a living as an artist. I’m mostly self taught although I have taken courses over the years in the art department of my college and with independent artists. I don’t hesitate to call myself a sociologist (I have the credentials). I do hesitate to call myself an artist even though I do a lot of things that artists do. I need to explain this further in another blog post. I’ve read many books on art and art history but the nature of it still eludes me. It’s clear to me that looking at a painting I’m not always looking at a work of art. Oh, I have some sense of what it is, its origins and connections to other aspects of culture, but I’m still not convinced I fully understand it.
I was not destined to be a teacher, writer, and artist. In fact my social class at birth almost precluded access to those adult pursuits. My father was functionally illiterate although highly intelligent and capable. My mother had a grade eight education in a rural school at a time when academic achievement was not considered very important for girls. As she entered adulthood, she was too busy raising children (I have fourteen siblings) to engage in any sustained artistic activities even if she had wanted to. We had very few books in the house as I was growing up. We got a television set in 1956 and that became the centre of family life after church and cards.
My grandparents migrated from Québec and New Brunswick in the early 20th Century to homestead in north-eastern Alberta. They weren’t farmers by training, but free land had its appeal. They were tradespeople and entrepreneurs. My paternal grandfather was an accomplished blacksmith and my maternal grandfather was much more inclined to start a small business than farm. He eventually ran a bakery in Bonnyville, Alberta and later, after moving to British Columbia, he owned a grocery store. Later, he returned to agriculture to some extent with a quite successful blueberry farm in Abbotsford. My father, in spite of his illiteracy, was able to rise to management positions in the lumber industry, nothing high level, but still, he became a foreman and operations manager of a fair sized wood remanufacturing plant. More important, he was a virtuoso with tools, both creating them and using them. I have no idea how he did it, but without any formal math or engineering skills, he could grind planer knives to very demanding specifications and in a variety of profiles.
I grew up in a small three bedroom house in Coquitlam. I never felt poor but I knew that we weren’t rich either compared to our doctor and dentist or even some of our neighbours like the mayor (reeve) of Coquitlam. Of course, they weren’t wealthy either on the order of a Jimmy Pattison or other corporate magnate. As I grew older, however, I came to fully understand my class position. More on that later.
So, in terms of employment my family life did nothing to prepare me for my life as a college teacher. Higher education was not a consideration in my early teens. In fact, I actually started working in the lumber industry during the summer when I was fourteen years old when my father got a job in a picket fence manufacturing plant in South Surrey, BC. and continued to work in mills and lumber yards for a few years. In a sense I was much better prepared to work in the lumber industry than at a university or college. Partly what turned me away from the lumber industry was an industrial accident requiring lower back surgery. Fortuitously, after I recovered from my surgery, I undertook a one day occupational and psychological testing program as a means of figuring out what my aptitudes might be. A couple of weeks later I got the results of the day’s testing and one of the results was that I had the aptitude to become a writer and maybe an anthropologist. Well, then, I had something to go on. I applied to attend Simon Fraser University but was turned down because of my poor high school record. So, I turned to Douglas College in New Westminster where I was accepted. I did very well there in terms of grades and after a couple of years applied to SFU and got in. Both of my degrees are from SFU.
Strangely enough, although my family had no way of relating to my career choices, it did prepare me for a sensitivity to art. Some of my siblings are wonderful at drawing and painting and one of my uncles was a brilliant artist but made a living painting street signs for a couple of different municipalities. What my family did for me without doing it deliberately at all was show me that art could infuse my life even if I couldn’t make a living at it and that artistry can be found in the studio, in the darkroom, but also at the forge, in the garden, and in the woodworking shop as well as in the kitchen.
In many ways I have had an idyllic life. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do so many things. Of course I’ve had my share of trauma being human and all that, but I’ve also had the privilege of learning and studying with some very fine teachers over the years and my years of teaching have been a wonder. I’ve read thousands of books, mostly in sociology and related disciplines, but I’ve also read many books on art and art history as well as novels and stories from which much learning can be had. I’ve been able to travel, canoe and hike in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a beautiful home. I have my family. What a gift my family has been. Nothing I say about my family can be enough. No words can express the love I feel for everyone, Carolyn, my children, their children, my brothers and sisters, their children and their children. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s okay. Everyone’s road is different. Sometimes we do share the road. At other times not so much, but that doesn’t diminish the deep connection I feel for everyone in my family. They give meaning to everything that I do every day. On top of all that, I have my community in the Comox Valley, especially in Cumberland. I feel firmly connected to it and the natural environment here. I know about evolution and the temporality of life; I know that my life is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but I don’t live in the cosmos, I live here and now. I know that it’s a bit of a waste of energy, but I get angry at the utter disrespect some people show towards others and the natural world in which we live. Yes, I do feel love but I also feel anger. I’ve thought about this a fair bit because sometimes I feel anger welling up inside of me and I have some trouble explaining why. Anger is a very complex emotion and it is not easy to explain or dissect. I’ll give it a try though in a post coming soon to a computer near you!
Finally, in future posts I want to explore teaching, writing and art in turn as aspects of my life. I want to explore the processes involved in each activity and my journey in learning how to teach, write and ‘do’ art. As well, I will reflect on the philosophical and social underpinnings of each activity. I’m basically embarking on a bit of a retrospective examination of some major parts of my life but, like a good teacher, I expect some of you might just learn a little something by reading my work. It’s a hope I always had as a teacher with respect to my students, and that hope hasn’t died just because I’m no longer getting paid to teach!
Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:
The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!
The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.
I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in TheWesterlySun.com in Norwich, Connecticut:
He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.
I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.
There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.
The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.
Is it possible to have equality between the sexes?
Given the history of sexual relations on this planet, a logical answer would seem to be a resounding NO. But I don’t think that’s so.
Yes, absolutely, I do think that equality is possible. However, it can only be possible when humankind, especially the male fraction of the species, agrees to give up its apotheotic quest for the god-like status of an immortal being. There are hints that there is movement in this direction (more on this later), but we have a long way to go before the bulk of humankind can reconcile itself to the idea that our bodies are all we are and souls do not exist except in our collective conscience.
I sincerely have sympathy for people who want to live forever. Our quest for immortality is the basis for a lot of our sociality. We share a belief in eternal life with others like us. We build institutions and organizations to perpetuate and nurture this belief. It’s an appealing prospect until one begins to read the fine print or we begin to kill each other to defend ‘our’ god against the gods of ‘others’ who dare to try to usurp our vision of the way to eternal life. The way gods work, there can really be only one that is the true god. All others must be pretenders. (This isn’t strictly true. Even one god, the one proclaimed by Moses and Abraham, can be the source of real division, death and mayhem). That said, let’s get to the nitty gritty.
It’s evident that males and females of many species of animal are dimorphic, meaning that the sexes vary in body size, shape and weight, hairiness, and in other easily ascertainable ways. Us humans are significantly dimorphic with males being on average stronger, bigger, etc. So, men and women are not equal in many respects. This has lead a whole lot of conservative thinkers and philosophers going back as far into history as the eye can see to make the logical leap to conclude that these physical inequalities are the natural basis for the social, economic, and political inequality of the sexes. This is patently absurd but it doesn’t stop those who claim a logical basis for their arguments in natural human variation from making their claims on clearly ideological grounds.
It’s certainly true that there is huge variability in male human size, strength and shape. Some theorists might dare to suggest that the Nilotic peoples, especially the Dinka and Nuer, being very tall and thin on average, must be superior to the BaMbuti people of the Ituri Forest in central Africa, who are what we used to call pygmies, and who are very short and compact. The same is true for intra-female variability. The variability of human form is quite evident still, of course, but there is evidence that with international travel and population mixing that the variability that we have seen historically is very slowly attenuating.
Of course, we’ve seen evidence in history that skin colour, eye shape, etc have been significant bases for the imposition of social inequality. We ‘other’ people for all kinds of convenient reasons especially social and economic power. We deny people equality for whatever reason we can dream up or make up as long as it’s in our interests. So, what about the inequality that exists between men and women? Well, I think I’ve repeated it often enough, but it may be worth repeating again. Men have longed for immortality for as far back as we can ascertain. Their literate representatives who have gotten into the history books and have written a huge range of proclamations on the topic going back further than ancient Babylon have been pretty well in agreement that women are a huge stumbling block to achieving the objective of immortality. Women just can’t help but get most of us poor men all lathered up sexually and by that process, take our limited attention away from our focus on our spiritual salvation and eternal life.
It’s pretty common to read in historical documents, including the Bible, of course, that any form of pleasure of the flesh is sinful and leads to eternal damnation. In her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and The Catholic Church Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s focus is on Church writers, theologians, popes and the like. She also, however, goes beyond her analysis of women and the Catholic Church, to consider relations between men and women taken more broadly. She notes that although it seems that proscriptions and interdictions regarding sex are pretty straightforward in historical texts, we cannot assume that everyone was on board with those specialists, philosophers, theologians, etc., who were often celibates and who lorded it over the masses. It seems the masses weren’t always in agreement with the high and mighty and often ignored interdictions even to the point of suffering persecution and social exile.
Of course, it’s really quite ridiculous to expect people to not enjoy sex. Plainly, there are many circumstances where sex is not at all pleasurable, especially for women and even ejaculation can be painful at times for a small minority of men. Still, essentially, sex and pleasure go hand in hand. I (and I daresay most men) would find it very difficult not to feel some pleasure upon ejaculation. Ironically, according to many writers historically men are not supposed to even experience ejaculation (during masturbation or coitus) unless it’s sanctioned by the authorities and only under very socially proscribed situations. In fact, Ranke-Heinemann notes that church authorities even discouraged sex between spouses, some going so far as to dictate time of day, day of the week, months of the year. Needless to say, the Church fathers were only concerned with male sexual pleasure and regulating it, not female pleasure, which they often assumed never existed.
Let’s not fool ourselves either to think that regulation of sexuality is a thing of the past. Female (and male) genital mutilation is still commonly practiced as well as segregation of the sexes. It’s also still common for states to try to regulate what you can do in the privacy of your bedroom.
One last thing before I move on. It’s clear that not all men are misogynists and women victims. Humans will always find ways of sharing intimacy and revelling in sensual, sexual pleasure no matter what the ayatollah, the pope, imam, rabbi, or whoever goes on about how bad it is and how it detracts from our main goal of immortal life in the presence of our preferred deity. It’s also true that women can have just as much of a stake in immortality as men do. The only difference between men and women in this regard is that men have made up all the rules and women must obey or live eternally in hell.
It’s also clear to me that men and women can equally be jerks, self-serving, mean, nasty, and violent. They may choose different paths to meanness, nastiness and jerkiness on occasion, but elimination of the search for immortality will not necessarily do away with the human condition although I really am optimistic that there will come a time when there will be less basis for stupid, vapid, ignorant human behaviour. The elimination of competition for favour in the eyes of God or just for individual specialness, even on the football field, will take us a long way to equality of the sexes. Just don’t expect dramatic results too soon.
It’s also true, I’m pleased to say, that we can love profoundly and unconditionally. Problem is that we do that in spite of all the social forces that work to divide us when they should be working to bring us together romantically, whether it’s woman with man, woman with woman, man with man or a combination of the above. I’m not saying we should abandon all restraint and engage in all out debauchery, but we should all be engaged in figuring out as we go along what we want rather than have the high and mighty do that for us in the name of a false hope of immortality.
Next: how little innocuous things like words, sayings, and practices can reinforce and even exacerbate sexual inequality.
 See de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a detailed exploration of this topic. Germaine Greer takes a slightly different look at sexual dimorphism in humans in her book, The Female Eunuch.