Did Chika love dogs? I just finished reading ‘Finding Chika’. I’m sitting on my sofa in our living room. The Christmas tree is still up, the lights twinkling. Tears stream down my face. At Lesson Six, one of our dogs, a red golden retriever named Pages, who was laying on the sofa across from me, started whining. I always say she talks a lot, our Pages. Lesson Six. I read. She whines. Then page 200 and Chika sings, “I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God” for eight minutes straight and you get it on video, and I’m sobbing.
Pages jumps off her sofa and jumps up onto mine. She’s really whining now, with every breath, and she looks deeply into my eyes. I turn my face to her so she can lick away my tears, which she does, almost ferociously. I keep reading. She sits beside me and leans into me as I turn page after page and cry harder and harder. Page 205, “Please stay.” Then Oscar, our other dog, (another Golden but his fur is white like an angel), moves close to me and lays on my feet. I’m in a dog sandwich. Pages pants. Then your trip to Haiti to purchase two plots at the cemetery. This is unbearable. The dogs both pant. “What we carry defines who we are. And the effort we make is our legacy.”
And I am still sobbing and thinking that sometimes, we carry other people’s legacies – we hold them, we shape them, we are the givers of these legacies to the world. I think of my ailing Nonna. Ninety-two years-old with dementia eating away her memories. I carry her legacy in my heart, on my skin, in my poetry and my storytelling. If you asked her if she felt her legacy, she’d wave you away and ask you what you wanted to eat. It is the Italian in her. It is the service. She wouldn’t want to ‘burden’ anyone with anything, much less a legacy. And yet, it is constant as each sun and moon rise and fall. It is love.
Then April 7th. Pages 227-229. I sob so loud and hard my daughter comes to me and asks if I’m okay. The dogs are breathing all over me. She moves through them and leans into me for an embrace. I cry into her shoulder. She is eleven. She is healthy. She lets me weep into her soft neck. We hug for several minutes. I don’t want to let her go – even from this embrace. I love you, mommy, she says. I love you too, I manage through tears. She heads back to her room. I pick up your book. Find Chika, you, Janine again. And page 231. And you and Chika embrace too. You can feel her! “Where is Chika?” she asks. She puts her hand against my heart. “There she is!” And she is gone.
We do this too. We – me, my husband, our son and our daughter – at least once a day, we each flatten a palm over a heart of each other. Sometimes we say I love you. Sometimes we don’t. The gesture is everything.
It’s January 4th, 2020. Twenty-twenty. Those two words together are odd in my mouth. Their meaning playing games with my mind…they are part future, part carnival. I remember thinking as a child how far away this year was…unreachable, really. And if reached, it would be to get in a flying car and hop on a hover board to get to a school in the sky. The future is a tricky shadow sometimes. I saved your book knowing that I’d read it over the holidays. That I’d have the space and the time to give my full attention to your words, to your family’s miraculous journey. I remember the front-page article in the Free Press after Chika flew to heaven…I stared at your faces in the picture and had to look away. I wasn’t ready to accept it…I didn’t want to let it into my heart.
I do that. Some things…the news on most days…I just can’t let it in. I find this started happening when I became a mother. And as my children grow…up and out and beyond what I can protect, there is a constant belt of fear strapped tightly around my heart. Some information is just too much. It tightens the belt. I’m scared it will crush the love I need to keep giving. You know. It’s funny…or maybe odd…or hopeful…but when I was a kid and thinking of the future that is now, I never imagined that there could possibly be the strife, the challenges…the diseases that are still here or that exist at all. I thought all that would be handled somehow…and our biggest challenges would be what star to land on or what food we could eat that would taste great and not be bad for us.
Christmas came and went…with challenges to family that I’m still trying to navigate…and the end of a decade, a year…slip, sliding into ‘twenty-twenty’ like the world is a just-zamboni-ed ice rink and I barely know how to skate. Your book, Chika, waited patiently for me to pick up and read. I read it slowly…bending up the bottom corners of pages where words struck me extra-specially…and I knew what was coming so I took my time. I ignored you for two full days because I just didn’t want to read to the…
This morning, the house was quiet. The sofa was waiting. I made coffee. Took your book and my mug with its hot loveliness to the living room. And. I. Read. I read through tears and sobs. And I felt that belt on my heart try to squeeze a new break into it…but the break didn’t come. Instead, two dogs who magically knew to kiss and pant love on me…my daughter with her perfectly strong embrace and love…and the beauty of love that bursts so forcefully it feels like you die too…when a star comes knocking at the door…when an angel gets her wings…when the body frees a soul that has much more life to live and give…when God holds up a child to His lap in the garden of heaven for reasons we have to trust even though none of them feel ‘right’ and maybe never will.
Lesson One: I Am Your Protection
Lesson Two: Time Changes
Lesson Three: A Sense Of Wonder
Lesson Four: Kid Tough
Lesson Five: When Children Are Yours and Not Yours
Lesson Six: When A Marriage Becomes A Family
Lesson Seven: What We Carry
I want to see what they look like – stacked like a poem…like a list…like a lesson plan. It looks like a mountain with Chika on top.
Thank you for your brave, vulnerable, honest and intimate sharing. Thanks to Chika for her light and miracles and humour and wisdom and hope. Thanks to Janine for her strength, trust, and resilience. Thank you all for the love you are able to give and receive – for it’s in the ability to love and be loved that enables us to carry the heaviest loads…
We’ve talked on the phone a few times, you and I. We met when I was a teen and you were on the radio and writing your sports columns…before Tuesdays with Morrie or a sparkle of the light that is Chika ever knew they would handle your heart. I have a photo of you and I at one of your book signings here in Windsor. Your face is smiling…calm. Mine is wide-eyed…my smile a little awry. We’re not friends, though for many years it was a dream of mine that we would be writing buds in the least. I wrote you letters over the years…like this one, but different. It’s amazing how much impact a person can have on another. Through short yet powerful exchanges….through words that one writes and another reads. Through love lessons that these words communicate.
I wondered why you and Janine hadn’t had children. It was a passing thought…nothing more intrusive than that. I knew about your hard work in Haiti…and in one phone conversation you said you were headed there…perhaps I’d make it there one day too. I didn’t know about Chika until I saw the newspaper article with your faces on the front page. I wondered if you’d write about your family. I’m grateful that you have. That you will continue to write about it, I hope. I’m grateful Chika came to guide you through the writing.
My eyes are puffy from crying. Oscar is on the sofa beside me…keeping watch. I wonder, like I always do, if you’ll read this letter…and I feel a little shy for writing out the things my heart and head want to say to you…knowing that we don’t really know each other at all…yet it feels like we really, really do. And I am warmed by the simple truth that writing and reading is what connects us. We are writers. We are compelled and called to use our words to connect with others. It’s a gift. It’s a DNA strain of courage that is constantly evolving.
For the next bit of time, words will be triggers that reconnect me to ‘Finding Chika’. Someone will say something, and your words will appear in a line from your book. Or a feeling of deep love or hot grief will push on my chest. I think…that there are invisible strings of electric love that connect us. Every human to every human no matter what our circumstances…and maybe certain strings are soooo electric….soooo powerful that they exist differently and they turn into a song or a painting or a book…or a cure…and maybe the braver we each become in our abilities to let ourselves feel that zap – even when we’re afraid of how much it’ll hurt – when we do…it changes us in important ways. Ways necessary to keep this electric love alive.
I used to hope that we’d be writing buds. That we’d have long talks about writing process and creativity and the power of words to change the world. I get it now. We are. Our long talks are built into the books you write, the stories you share, the courage you teach. Our conversations about process and creativity extend in the ways we share our stories, the way we pass along books, re-read, highlight, use to teach and learn from the words that are written. I feel like I know you because what you write is a door to your soul. It’s open. Like Chika’s is. And it’s enough. It’s bursting-more-than-enough to share a story that you must share because you are a human who is a writer and that is one of your most important gifts.
Enough. That’s my ‘word’ for this new year…this new decade.
Sigh. I have to blow my nose…wipe my face.
Okay. I’m back.
I just put my palm on the cover of your book. And the tears erupt again. It’s like your heart…like Chika’s and Janine’s…like mine and everyone else who reads this miraculous story. We are connected.