10 June 2020


An anthology of essays about grief has been released this week by a Canadian publisher. My essay below was scheduled to appear in it, but the editor insisted on changing "kilometres" to "miles" because the story takes place in the United States. I refused. After all, I am Canadian. The book is Canadian. It's being published with funds from Canadian arts agencies. And if I am a Canadian looking off a balcony in the US, I am still seeing distances in kilometres. The editor said it was a deal-breaker. I pulled the essay. Some people thought my principled stand was silly. I disagree.

In the week after my brother Barry died, this essay probably needs an update. But it still seems pretty topical for me.


There’s an extreme cold warning today in Cobourg. Even with her little red rubber boots and her lush blue jacket, which she loathes wearing, my little dog, Lily, can barely walk along the sidewalk outside. She trots a few metres, then contortedly lifts a paw, gazing back up at me helplessly. I scoop her into my arms and carry her back home, give her a treat.
Meanwhile, I hear it snowed in Tallahassee this past week. The residents cheered. But in Pompano, it’s been pretty warm. Pompano is a place on this earth I never would have visited had my parents not bought a condo there and become snowbirds. I never would have believed my parents would become snowbirds. The first few years after they got their place, I had no interest in visiting. Why would I want to go to this outlet-mall wasteland in the United States of America?
What I first ever learned about Florida was that my grandfather, Samuel Blatt, used to go there in the winters, in the late 1960s. I was a little kid. I would send him postcards. “Dear Grandpa, how are you, I am fine, how is the weather there, the weather here is cold, love, Stuart.” And he would send me postcards. I don’t remember what they said, but they always bore paintings (or were they photos?) of these very colourful hotels in Miami. I would later learn that they were Art Deco hotels. I would see those colours again when I later travelled to Central America. Miami was a funny word when I was a child. My grandfather would say “Miami” and I would say “Yourami.” I’m not sure how common that joke was. I’m not sure that I meant it as a joke: it’s possible I thought the place was called “Ami” and it was my grandfather’s.
I feel like I am procrastinating on writing about grief in this essay. Just like I procrastinated handing it in to Catherine, until long after the deadline.
I went to Central America in late 1989. The initial impetus was to pursue a woman I had fallen in love with. (It didn’t work out, but we are good friends now.) I had never done anything like that before: I mean, backpacking somewhere. After I realized the romantic task was futile, I wound up travelling for six months, through Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It was one of the most important periods of my life. In the last week or so of the trip, I fell in love with a woman from the Netherlands. Turns out she was flying back just a week before I was scheduled to fly back, and she had a daylong layover in Florida. 
My plan had been to stop in Florida myself, on my way home, for a few weeks, and finally visit my parents’ place in Pompano. They had been extremely worried about me wandering around Central America for half a year. With a pencil, I altered my flight ticket, and put some initials beside the adjustment, so that I could take the same flight as my new friend. Somehow, in those days long before 9/11, I got through the check-in at the airport, and she and I got seats together.
We spent a day on the beach with my parents (she pointed out that on the beach in her country, her mother would likely be topless). Then we dropped her off at the airport, and I drove to Pompano with Sydney and Shirley Ross for the first time.
My parents’ condo was a miniature version of their condo in the north end of Toronto. My mother was an interior decorator, and she favoured whimsy, pastels, and a mixture of contemporary and antique. They were on the top floor (my memory may be off) of a four- or five-storey structure, one of dozens (my memory may be off) in the ungated compound they lived in. You could step out onto the balcony and look for kilometres: condos, palm trees, swimming pools, highways. This giant community was called Belle Aire (my memory may be off).
It was during that first stay in Pompano that I wrote my long poem “Little Black Train.” Unlike most poems I wrote, I didn’t complete it in a single setting. I wrote the first couple of pages one day, then a few days later another page, and the day after the final page. I have read that poem aloud to audiences more than any other poem of mine. When I read it, I am in Pompano, out on the balcony, or squirrelled away in my room, while my parents play bridge with friends in the kitchen, or go out for dinner. I also wrote a few homolinguistic translations in Pompano, one of Mark Strand’s “Reasons for Moving”; another of Tom Clark’s “Sonnet.” A short story of mine, “The Sun Tan,” takes place by the swimming pool outside my parents’ condo: it features various characters I saw there during my visits, which became pretty much annual after that first time in Florida.
It was on the balcony where I wrote “Little Black Train” that my mother wrote her farewell note in 1995, the note my father discovered in her nightstand drawer in Toronto the morning we were to bury her. She had had cancer earlier in the decade. It had gone into remission. It had come back. The rest of us were in denial, but she knew she didn’t have much time. In the note, she said she was out on the balcony writing while my dad was making her a grilled-cheese sandwich. She thanked my dad for looking after her. She lamented not having had grandchildren (but if she ever did, tell them they would have had a loving grandmother). She said my dad made her feel “treasured.” We put that on her headstone: “Forever treasured.”
I continued to visit my dad in Pompano during his months-long stay there each year. With my mom gone, my dad and I talked together a lot more. In fact, he rarely stopped talking with me. I had been a lot closer with my mom all my life. Now I got to know my dad. I liked to borrow the car and go to a used bookstore a half-hour away, or to the upscale bookstore in Boca Raton. My dad and I went to a butterfly sanctuary, or maybe it was a gardens. We saw a small anteater scurry through the brush. “It would be great to put that on a leash,” he said. (I later told him that I’d found — in a Salvadoran cookbook — a recipe for an anteater dish. You caught an anteater by thrusting your finger up its butt so it couldn’t scurry away. It’s possible I dreamed this. The same cookbook had a recipe for chicken cooked in Coca-Cola.)
Syd and Shirley had three sons. I was the youngest. Next up the ladder was Owen, and then the oldest was Barry. It wasn’t long after my dad sold the Florida condo, in 2000, that Owen died. He had been living with my dad in Toronto, and he collapsed, called for my dad, who called for an ambulance, and Owen never made it alive to the hospital. My dad never forgave himself. He had promised my mom he’d look after us. My dad died of cancer about six months later, in early 2001. The day before he died, I had rubbed his shoulders and stroked his thighs in the hospital. He was feeling sore all over. His circulation was terrible.
The last film he saw was something awful thing with Jean-Claude van Damme. I hate that he wasted a couple of the last hours of his life on that. The last book my mom finished was The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. I like to keep that in mind and ignore that she was partway through some salacious book about O. J. Simpson, whose trial she was obsessed with in her last year.
Anyway, just Barry and I were left. I couldn’t write much about my mother for many years. I wrote about my father almost right away. I was really fucking sick of hospitals. I wrote a poetry sequence called “Hospitality Suite,” about hospitals, about all my family disappearing into hospitals and never emerging again. About pacing hospital corridors. “they believe they believe they want to believe they press their hands into each other’s hands and squeeze shut their eyes then open them and press their wet eyeballs into each other’s eyeballs and they breathe quickly breathe as one they can hope why not hope they have to believe.”
My father had ridden in the ambulance with my brother. When, five months later, Barry and I convinced him that he needed to be in the hospital, he said okay, but he didn’t want a siren and he didn’t want flashing lights. The ambulance was several hours late, and I sat with him, holding his hand, as we crossed Toronto through rush hour. He named the streets we passed. He had always been proud of his knowledge of Toronto’s streets. Don Mills, Leslie, Bayview — “That’s where Harvey lived.” — Yonge, Bathurst, Dufferin — “My office was right up there.” He was sore and thirsty, but he acted as tour guide for his last living journey.
But when I think of my parents, I think of Pompano Beach, Florida. The heat. The trees. The Black people waiting at bus stops that seemed to be kilometres apart. The smell of gasoline mixing with the smell of the ocean. The library in the condo, which I once spent an entire week organizing: dividing into sections, alphabetizing, disposing of the books whose pages were falling out. Lots of Robert Ludlum. Harold Robbins. Barbara Cartland. And look — a Kurt Vonnegut!
Today, at thirty below Celsius, I imagine spending another slow day in Florida. Talking with Syd and Shirley. Sitting by the pool, watching the old people slather suntan grease on their loose, leathery skin. Going out for dinner (“I’m sure they have something vegetarian,” my dad would say, “I bet they have a salad!”). I know I will never be in Florida again. From my poem “Pompano”: “and I cannot find the letter / my mother wrote in Pompano / but I remember the word treasured / it’s how she felt, she said.”
I won’t die in Pompano Beach. I might not even die in Toronto. While my mother was dying, I read to her: Wordsworth, Keats, Hebrew prayers. She was in a coma. She’d been in a coma for a week. They had taken her off life support. My father went more quickly. I’m sure he just didn’t want to trouble Barry and me. He never wanted to trouble anyone. Owen’s death was invisible to me: I have only imagined, many times, him lying in my father’s arms as they waited for the ambulance.
I was trying to remember whether it was an anteater or an aardvark. It was neither. It was an armadillo. A little armoured one. You catch an armadillo by sticking a finger up its butt to stop it from running away. This is what I remember, but it’s possible I invented it entirely. I finally wrote about my mother about a decade after she died. She had wanted to kill Ernst Zundel, the Toronto neo-Nazi. She had planned to assassinate him during her first round of cancer. She made inquiries about guns. My mother the interior decorator played with being an assassin. She had grown up listening to the stories of the Holocaust, the deaths of her aunts and uncles. Her own mother, who died of cancer at age fifty, when I was just half a year old, had been sad since the Holocaust.
I wrote a novel in which my mother killed a neo-Nazi about half a dozen times. I’m working on a novel in which my father, between chemo treatments, comes to search for me in Guatemala, because he hasn’t heard from me in a month. I wrote a poem about my brother Owen’s burial. He died around midnight. He was buried at one o’clock the next afternoon. He used to coach baseball, and all these kids, gathered together on such short notice, showed up in the cemetery, dressed in their baseball uniforms. I never was very good at talking with Owen, but these kids: they idolized him. I have written so many poems now about my dead family. And a couple of novels, and another in progress. It doesn’t change anything. But I keep doing it. It’s what I’m good at. I’m trying to convince somebody of something. Is that what grieving is — trying to convince somebody of something?
As we all know, those of us who grieve — and that is most of us, I imagine — we never stop grieving. If we are Jewish, we walk through the snow-covered cemetery and place rocks on the headstones. We stand in the cold wind, and we think of Pompano Beach. Mom is writing a letter. Dad is making a grilled-cheese sandwich.


I’ve gathered you here, you three,
sitting before me just barely, with
stones upon your heads, and your friends
walk by, your nieces, put more
stones upon your heads. Do you remember
me? Dad, has the earth done things to 
your brain so now you don’t remember?
Mom? The earth has had you for so much
longer. And, Owen, I’m twelve years 
older than you ever were. I want you
to know I’ll never forget you, but I
can’t go on writing poems about you.
I’ve discovered they don’t bring
you back. They don’t make me 
understand you better. They don’t
even win me prizes. 

I live in a small town now. If you
came back, you’d never find me.
I sit on this bluff, overlooking the lake
and count the birds against the sky.
The waves are gray and foamy creatures
that pounce for the rocks but just can’t hold on.
I sit here. I write. I think about you
lying there. You picture me on a subway
or stuck in gridlock. But I’m here
in nature, with my little dog Lily,
and soon she and I
will gather some stones
to place upon your heads.

Over and out.


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