Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Invitations to the Unknown

We all have those friends who regardless of how much time passes, just simply "get" what we need when we share the things that have us twisted or upside down. Over the past eight years, I have learned to say "yes" to these kinds of friends when they invite me into experiences or adventures, regardless of the details. There's a certain level of trust there that what they have in mind isn't going to kill me or hurt me, though there have been times where following my friend, Deb, has led me to the gym and suspension thingy's and a few days of not being able to lift my arms above my head, but for the most part, I have some pretty great people around me that challenge me into new experiences.

Last week, when I shared with my friend, Cathy, about the passing our friend, Cynthia, I knew that she would feel the loss much the way I do. Cathy and Cynthia were pen pals before they had ever met. Cathy and I were co-workers for a few years when I first went to Zambia. When I returned, I had told her about Cynthia and how I had stayed in her home with her and the girls and just felt like she and Cathy had some kindred spirit kind of thing going on across the globe. Cathy sent a letter for Cynthia along with me on one of my next trips and I became the postmaster for two unlikely pen pals who lived oceans apart.

In 2012, when our family went to Africa for a few months, Cathy joined us in our adventure for a few weeks in Zambia and met her friend, Cynthia, face to face. It was an ordained meeting, I am sure of that.  Fast friendship, laughter and chatter that crossed the language barrier, I watched two friends cement their friendship. Cynthia always asked about Cathy when I came to Zambia and I know that she held the photos and letters from Cathy very close. Cathy would catch up with me when I'd return from a trip and find out how her friend was doing.

Messaging Cathy with the news of Cynthia's passing was hard and we were both sort of at a loss as to how to grieve long distance for this friend. We passed a few photos and memories back and forth and then Cathy invited me to her workplace today for something called "Feast for the Dead", mentioning we could sit and remember Cynthia together.

I'm not sure why, but I agreed, even though a "Feast for the Dead" sounded vague and ominous and not at all like something I would enjoy. Yet, I just agreed because that's what I do when Cathy asks me to join her in something. I agree. She's never led me too far astray. So, I showed up today at AIDS Saskatoon and came in through the back door to the kitchen in search of Cathy. She was piling apples onto a platter and sort of figuring out the details of this event as they unfolded. We threw my coat in her office, along with the belated birthday gift I'd brought her, and set to work making tea, piling fruit, and organizing some of the last minute things to get ready for the feast. I still reallllly didn't know what I'd signed on for but at this point, I was pretty comfortable. The kitchen smelled amazing...moose stew and bannock...and I can make pots of tea if that is what is required.

Slowly, it became clear that this was a sort of memorial feast for those who'd passed away in the last year. A sort of celebration of life - group style. It wasn't lost on me that the people who were gathering in the front room were grieving too, even if they weren't displaying it or wore no visible signs of their sadness. I watched several people make small triangular flags with the names of their friends who had passed away and I read the messages around the room as we waited for the Elder to arrive who was going to perform the blessing and start the feast. "I miss you kid" was the message that got me. It was that kind of intimate nickname that said more than any formal epitaph could.
I could feel the endearment as if it were spoken out loud, just from the way it was written on the small flag above the coffee urn.

AIDS Saskatoon is a pretty nondescript building, much the same as any sort of non-profit that scrambles for funding. The "living room" or drop in centre is basically a collection of random couches and bookshelves, coffee tables and desks, decorated a la mode of most overused and underfunded agencies in this realm of work. If you closed your eyes to the messages on Hep C and the admonitions that it's not okay to fix any time on the premises...you could be in any one of a number of agencies across the world that scramble to do their best by those they serve on a shoestring - a shoestring that often gets stepped on and shortened according to who is leading the dance around the budgetary ball.  There's the resident coffee urn and newspapers for people to peruse while hanging out, out of the snow and the wind that decided today was winter's arrival in our city. I keep busy photocopying the word search and crosswords for a couple of guys that are looking for something to do while we wait.

The room is filling and the First Nations Elder arrives and begins to settle into his position, ready to begin the ceremony. He looks like a salt of the earth kind of guy, jeans and a ball cap, glasses and hands that have worked hard. There's no ceremony about him but he takes his duties seriously and begins to speak in a low voice explaining how the ceremony will take place. His voice is low and surprises me.  In a room that was minutes before full of the chatter of those who live alone and seek conversation here as well as the accompanying noise of winter coats being shed, the wood floor complaining under the wet boots and melting snow, and the clatter of the kitchen presenting the food for the blessing, it is suddenly quiet and he speaks his low instructions and even throws in a joke.
He begins the blessing ceremony and a group of men serve each of us a large plate of food. As his voice quietly covers the room, it becomes sacred space.  Oranges and apples, cookies and candies, moose soup and bannock become elements of something important and necessary.  It's beautiful and it's generous. We sit quietly until everyone is served. Some women slip to the floor to sit, as is the custom in this sort of ceremony. I sit quietly in my chair and think it is much like communion being served, a tradition I don't comprehend in its entirety. It is such an intimate gesture to be served by someone in this way, particularly when you don't know them.  I'm looking at the food on the platter in front of me and I'm thinking about the words of the Elder who is passing around a bucket. Each person takes a small portion of everything on his plate and puts it in the bucket as an offering to those who have passed away. In my faith, I can't think of anything cultural equal to this that we hold on to but in my mind, I'm thinking of the Old Testament sacrifices as well as all sorts of parallels in modern day of homages we pay to those in memorium. As I break apart the bannock and the apple and the orange on my plate, my eyes fill with tears as I think that Cynthia, who has struggled for so long in a community with no food security, now has nothing to worry about in terms of nourishment. I honestly felt that I was sharing food with Cynthia in a non-mystical, not to be misinterpreted kind of way, but in a way that acknowledged that her struggle for food and to feed her family was over. I was incredibly grateful for that for her and I held on to that gratitude for the entire afternoon.

As the Elder spoke the blessing over the meal, in his language, I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was in. Around me, no one stirred. In a room of people mostly of First Nations descent, there is an incredible beauty to the respect they have for their elders and for the ceremonies of their culture. I have often felt this way when in the presence of other cultures, that there is something we've missed in our own, that deep reverence for things past and the desire to keep them alive in tradition and to hold them with such respect. In recent days, with so much talk in the media about assimilating cultures and new Canadians needing to blend into our culture, I realize we have little culture to offer them. I'm as proud of a Canadian as I think you'd find but while I love hockey and maple syrup and poutine, I think that the beauty of our country is what I was surrounded by this afternoon. Culture doesn't need to be feared or suppressed, it also doesn't water down our own beliefs or culture to acknowledge that of another. I learned more about my own faith and my own beliefs today being part of this ceremony that I would have imagined.

After we ate and the remnants of lunch were packed up and dispersed to everyone to take home, Cathy and I grabbed a few minutes to just chat and catch up a little. She opened her birthday gift that I had brought along...a glass bottle of Grape Fanta. It was a shared memory from our time in Zambia and she responded exactly as I knew she would. I love that about her.  I grabbed my jacket and scarf and began to reassemble the outdoor gear needed to go back out in the snow. The tracks we'd left coming in had been all but obliterated, just faint indentations in the white landscape ahead.

 I felt that I had been able to say goodbye to my friend, Cynthia, over the miles, appropriately. There was a release in that. It was a small celebratory funeral in its way...to sit with Cathy and chat about Cynthia and what we remembered of our times together. It was what I exactly what I needed and I'm thankful for friends like Cathy who know what to suggest. It's not lost on me that Cathy accepted my invitation to the unknown when she jumped into the opportunity to come to Zambia. I think that is what makes for strong friendships, trusting one another with the adventure or answers the other sees for you, when you can't see it or articulate it for yourself.  I walked back to my snow covered vehicle and sat for a moment, isolated by the white out of the windows, and just allowed the grief to lift and the gratitude to settle. I wiped the tears away in time with the windshield wipers sweeping away the snow and through blurry eyes and windows, I headed home, leaving the tracks of this day to be filled in behind me.
Cathy and Cynthia in 2012. Two halves of a great friendship!

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