Read A Witness to Life (Ashland, 2) Online

Authors: Terence M. Green

A Witness to Life (Ashland, 2)

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A Witness to Life

Terence M. Green

 

 

For

David Danladi Luginbühl

Always remembered, always loved

Music forever

1974-1997

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?

—Thomas Merton

The Sign of Jonas

 

 

It breaks my heart to see her lying there, worn out, dying. But she is so happy to see me, and to see Jack, and this elates me.

And I am more than glad to see Jack too. I am renewed. It has been so long, so very long. And I have searched so far.

But Margaret. Oh, Marg. My princess. That this should happen to you. That I can do nothing about it.

My daughter. My first.

It is 1984. I am in the Women's College Hospital, Toronto. She is seventy-four. I look around, at the beds, the curtains, the tubes. The wrong place to die: a waiting game without dignity.

And yet she is older than I was when I died. I had the good fortune to die of a heart attack on the streetcar. But I was only seventy.

We are both too young. Everybody is too young.

I reach out, touch her face.

So does Jack, my son, whom I have not seen for more than fifty years. I do not understand how it is that he is here with me, nor why he is still a young man in his twenties, but I accept it as one of death's gifts. I understand very little anymore. Death has not taught me what I thought it might.

Margaret smiles, her eyes smile, knowing, understanding, and I think I might die again, just by seeing this. I know, suddenly, that there is not much more time. I do not know how I know this, nor what it means. And I have no idea what will come next.

 

One's life is supposed to flash before one's eyes when death comes. This is not true. It is no mere flash. It is much more complex. At least, it was for me. There is reflection. There is travel along the arc of space and time, back to source, ahead to destiny. I have been traveling for thirty-four years. I do not know how long it will last.

Something awaits me. Something. I know it. I feel it.

I am close. So close. Finally. Jack. Margaret. Here with me now.

It is part of the wonder.

Part of the mystery.

 

It was Christmas Day, 1950, a Monday—back before the subway was built, when the streetcars still ran up Yonge Street in Toronto and snaked on rails around the city everywhere, clanging, methodical. I was sitting in an eastbound car, on Dundas near Bloor, looking out the window, thinking about the eventual walk along Eglinton Avenue, about the icy wind that would burrow through layers of clothing— thinking about Dennis, my newest grandson, who would be two years old in March, and how much he would enjoy Christmas.

And it happened. I imagine that it has happened, and will happen like this, to millions, to billions, before and after my time—that it was happening to others even as it was happening to me. A complete surprise. So much surprises us, and yet so little should.

It was my turn to die.

I was coming to see you Marg, coming to spend the day. We hadn't spent enough days like this.

The pain filled my chest, but it didn't last long. Not really. I understand more now about time than I did then, and in reality it was merely a cosmic eye blink. I looked at the woman seated beside me, a stranger, said, "I can't breathe." My left hand clutched the chrome rail on the back of the seat in front of me, while my right hand instinctively squeezed the stone in my jacket pocket, the one given to me that day in the garden by the monk—that day in the sunlight. This stone is life, he had said.

I squeezed it fiercely. I thought of Joan, Margaret, Jack, then died.

 

Death has not been what I expected.

Not that I knew what to expect. I did have some concrete images in my head once, images that had blurred to vague concepts over the years, of a God, an afterlife—from being taken to church as a child, from my parents, from catechism lessons so many years ago. Nor would I have been terribly astonished if nothing at all had awaited me—a leaf fallen from a tree, becoming soil.

 

The streetcar shuddered to a stop, the woman next to me clutching my arm in fear and real concern. I heard a muffled hollering, knew confusion, as all that made sense slid away, like a morning dream. The conductor appeared beside me, and within seconds the car was being cleared of passengers. From far off, I heard him announce that the trolley was out of service and was proceeding directly, with all haste, to Western Hospital.

I remember looking out the window, from deep within me, through whirling, dying eyes, watching a flock of starlings rise up in widening circles from the pavement in a floating wave, a current toward the heavens. And as I watched, as I died, I became one of them, leaving my body behind, spiraling high above the street, the winter sky crisp, clear, seeing the interstices of streets below with an acuity of vision that I had never had before.

And then a kind of sense returned, a new order. This is what happens, I thought: a new clarity, a new vantage point.

I saw ahead to Yonge Street, north to St. Clair, farther to Eglinton. I tried to see Maxwell Avenue, running south off Eglinton, and the semidetached house that held much of what was left of my family, waiting for me.

Where you were, Marg.

Then I climbed higher, swooping with the flock, wondering where we were going, where I was going.

 

My name is Martin John Radey. I was born in Elora, a village some sixty miles northwest of Toronto, in 1880. I have been dead, as I stated, for thirty-four years. I accept what has happened to me, but I do not understand it. Perhaps acceptance is the beginning. Maybe understanding never comes.

I am the youngest of thirteen children who lived—eleven sisters and a brother. There were sixteen of us, if you count the three babies who died. We were all born in Elora.

Now we are all dead.

 

Back in 1950, as I soared high on the winds, the winter air searing the new, tiny lungs, I wondered, with a burst of incredulity and exhilaration, if I would see my two brothers, who died as infants, or any of my sisters—my big sister, Sarah, who died before my fifth birthday, or little Loretta, five months old, who died later that same summer of 1885—my mother, my father, here in my new existence.

And Gert. Maybe Gert. Maybe Maggie. The thought startled me, exploding a rainbow of memories.

The flock circling me leaned in unison into an updraft, left wings tilted downward, and as one we barreled north and west. My heart, stopped forever in the body below us on Dundas Avenue, had been replaced by one beating wildly with wonder.

Ahead, the horizon arced and rolled as we left the city behind, and below us the calm, brown and white winter landscape spread far and wide in soft refuge. And then I realized that I knew where we were going. We were going to Elora. I was heading home.

 

Flying low over the fields around Elora, the snow disappeared. Time vanished. The past was here, to be felt, viewed, examined.

I could see the old house on McNab, the post office in Godfrey's shoe store on Metcalfe Street, the carpet factory, the old bridge across the Grand. The Tooth of Time was there, the stone fang jutting from the rapids beside the mill, as always.

Suddenly: summer. Gardens with flowers, vegetables. Elms, oaks, maples. The tannery, the brewery. The town hall, the Dalby House, the sawmill. Cords of hardwood, piled high. Horses.

And Father's shop, right beside Mundell's furniture factory. Where it used to be.

Through piercing avian eyes, above the earth, free, in death, I saw things and places that I had forgotten, and a past I never knew.

And above us, a single, hawk, wings motionless, circling, entered a cloud. With new instincts, I watched for it, waited. It did not come out.

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