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The Day Jesus Crossed the Sea: Fear and the Gerasene Demoniac

With climate disruption, supply chain mayhem, and a never-ending pandemic there is no shortage of reasons to live fearfully these days. The reason for our fears may be unique to our time but as pundits of human history have been quick to point out, living fearfully is not new to the 21st century. Every generation has had its own fear demons with which to wrestle. It seems that fear in all its many guises is part of the human condition.

How to respond to fear is one of the most important gifts that healthy spirituality has to offer. To its credit the Bible takes this mandate seriously. One of the most common refrains spoken by Jesus is “Don’t be afraid.” Taken on their own these words run the risk of being glib or simplistic.

Fortunately Jesus backs up the invitation with an embodied way into fear-filled situations that diminishes the lie of invincibility that fear likes to flaunt. With the soul force of love grounded in Divine Being, Jesus stands in fear’s path and refuses to let fear overstep its boundaries.

In the Gospel of Mark the story is told of a man who lived alone among tombs, an outcast among his own people. A spirit of fear called Legion has taken control of his body and mind. Public theologian and activist Brain McLaren draws a direct connection between Legion and the occupying presence of the Roman military in first-century Palestine.

This season’s Burrard St. Story Guild production is the story of Jesus putting an end to the advance of a fear that has been passed from one context to the next and growing ever larger as it moves: first from the soldiers of Rome, to the villagers in the country of the Gerasenes, and finally to the exiled man living alone in a cemetery.

Why Jesus allows Legion to enter a herd of two-thousand unsuspecting pigs driving them to their death is a question that goes unanswered in the story. Scholars suggest that a herd that size would be the modern-day equivalent of a large corporation and that the pigs were most likely being raised to feed the military-industrial complex of Rome, i.e. the antithesis of the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless the drowning of the pigs begs the question of the price the earth has had to pay to absorb human fear. And is there a connection to Jesus own death only months later when he enters the abyss feared even by Legion in order to root fear out at the deepest levels of human existence?

In his book, How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins suggests that one of the ways to hold fear in check is to find a story bigger than the story fear is trying to tell. Legion and the Pigs:The Day Jesus Crossed the Sea points us in the direction of a bigger story – a story that recognizes the potential of compassion over exclusion, love over hatred, and solidarity over isolation and fear.

So please join the six kids of this season’s Burrard St. Story Guild and our guest performers – either in person at 10:30 on December 5, 2021 at Canadian Memorial United Church (corner of 15th Ave. and Burrard St., masks and double vaccine required), or online for the free live-streamed telling of Legion and the PigsThe Day Jesus Crossed the Sea.

When Stories Meet: Shad, the Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders and Story Guild Alumni

Finding the right balance between ‘my story’, ‘our story’, and ‘God’s Story’ is critical to Sacred Canopy’s programming and productions. It’s this three-way dynamic that keeps our storytelling grounded, accessible, and healthy.

If any one of these is left without the counter weight of the other for too long, the distortions quickly set in. A singular focus on ‘my story’ and you get tedious introspection, on ‘our story’ and you get tribalism, on ‘God’s Story’ and you risk religious fanaticism.

One of the ways we explore the “our story” component of this triad is to interweave a contemporary story with the ancient biblical story. Both stories make their way onto the stage for the end-of-season production.

Usually these contemporary stories are of ordinary people doing ordinary things, like the time we re-enacted the story of an elder Trinidaian couple in our congregation immigrating in the 1960s to racially segregated Toronto (yes, Toronto, not a typo!). In Night Vision, we interwove the Chariandy’s story with the story of Abraham and Sarah, their shared struggle, across millenium, to find their footing in the new country to which they had been led.

Sometimes, however, the people we’ve found to work with hold a much larger place in the public imagination.

On another occasion we invited the Juno-award winning Canadian rapper, Shad to work with our Eastside Story Guild on a rap for the opening scene of Angels and Ladders our telling of the rivalry between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Needless-to-say, the sanctuary was packed out on the opening night of that show when Shad performed live with the kids, riffing off The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Then there was the time Wet’suwet’en activist and treaty-rights defender Freda Huson invited us to what was then the little known Unist’ot’en resistance camp in northern BC. For three days we listened to Freda’s stories of building a healing centre in the path of a pipeline. We chopped wood, smoked mountain goat, walked the land with Freda and captured it all on film. Back in Vancouver we used huge, ceiling-height screens to interweave the Unist’ot’en resistance story with our own season-end telling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah.

And now, years later, and within weeks of each other both Shad and Freda have received international recognition for work that presses hard toward a more equitable and just world for all. Shad for his newly dropped genre-bending album, TAO, that moves the cultural conversation forward on many fronts (“capitalism, racism, surveillance, Black excellence—or lack thereof—and more”), and Freda, winner of the Right Livelihood Award for her “fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.”

Our first story guild alumni are all young adults now: some in fledgling careers, others looking out college windows, and still others picking up their weekly minimum wage pay cheques. Regardless of where they find themselves I like to think of them scrolling social media and coming across these stories of Shad and Freda, two people with whom they once shared the story guild stage, two people still making a difference, still making the world a better place.

I’d like to think it reminds our alumni how interwoven, and held, all our stories really are.

Where There Is No Path

How Sacred Story Guides Us Through the Deep Forest of Grief

Our first child arrived into the world 22 years ago today. But something was wrong. He struggled to breathe and twenty minutes later was pronounced dead. It was a full-term pregnancy and up until that point there had been no question of viability. To have a son born and die on the same day without any advance warning launched me into the deepest grief I have ever known.

In mythic terms, when a person experiences great loss, they enter a forest where there is no path. The stages of grief may be predictable, but the shape and contours of each of those stages is unique to everyone who walks the path. Each person has to find their own way. Some may pass through the deepest, darkest part of the wood early on. They may fear, as I did, that they will never find their way out. For others that section of forest comes later. Some come out into frequent clearings where the warmth of the sun hits their face. Others walk the whole wood never once experiencing the dappled light of day.

Sacred stories can’t give you the specifics of your particular path. Nothing can. What sacred stories can do, however, is provide reassurance that the dark wood you are in does not comprise the whole map. A sacred story will honour the forest, and the path that must be taken through it, but it will also reveal the forest’s limits and boundaries. A sacred story provides a bird’s eye perspective of the wide, sunlit landscapes on the far side. It’s this perspective that can get a person through the forest, that can give them the courage to journey deeper in.

There are many such stories in the biblical narrative. The story of Jesus is one of them. Like a lantern it casts light on the next step and then the next. His own journey through sorrow and loss and death invites us not to project our pain outward at those around us (which is the fallback script of a retributive culture like ours), but to stay with the pain. To bear the tension of it. And ultimately to trust that the path will lead us to new terrain on the far side of the forest.

The Christian tradition has a name for this ancient story. It’s called the Paschal Mystery.

Aden’s funeral took place six days later at the church where I was pastoring. The first thing I saw when I walked into the crowded sanctuary behind my son’s tiny coffin were the kids of the Eastside Story Guild sitting on the very front pew. They were a group of a dozen or so ranging in age from 3-18, and represented an East Vancouver mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.

It was the very first season of the very first story guild, yet already, the kids were leaning against each other, arms intertwined with matching blue story guild t-shirts that read “Where my story and God’s Story meet’. I was comforted knowing that this group of kids knew what every kid deserves to know: that they were a part of a Story large enough to hold all of life, including theirs, in both its beauty and its heartache.

When Love Trumps Legacy: A Daughter-Father Pandemic Story

But soon we shall die and all memory of the five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough, all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

– Thornton Wilder,  The Bridge of San Luis Rey


Much is made these days of parents who keep their children trapped in molds that have more to do with the needs and ambitions of the parents than with those of the child. This is that story, only in reverse. 

It has taken a lifetime, and a pandemic, for me to learn to love my dad for the man that he is and not for the man I’ve imagined or needed him to be.

Growing up everything Dad did seemed larger than life.  I all but worshipped him. Where it began I can’t say. I’m no psychologist.


The Stoplog cabin in the North Kawarthas.

Maybe it was with the Thoreau-inspired cabin he built with Mom in the backwoods of Ontario while I was still in diapers. (Typical to how my parents operated they prioritized the view over the more practical matter of access to water and to this day you have to climb down a steep ledge and whack through brush to get a bucket of water for cooking and washing.) 


Or maybe it was the teaching role Dad assumed at a secondary school in the Kikuyu highlands in central Kenya when I was only five.  We arrived in the port of Mombasa after a 22-day ocean voyage around the Cape, a part of the so-called “new wave” of nation-building missionaries, energized by the spirit of harambee in post-colonial Africa.  


Dad giving me the workings over, “to remove all the bad spots.”

Maybe it was the simple things like Dad going out every morning to milk his cow in the roshishio (rolling mist) behind our little stone house, or the character-rich stories of his childhood on the Bullock farm at Young’s Point in some far-off place called Ontario, or the swirls of smoke from his pipe and lingering smell of Old Port tobacco in the air, or Dad’s weekly ritual of giving me and my three brothers “the workings over”: deep muscle tickles, wrestling locks, bear hugs and whisker rubs that left us breathless with laughter, squealing, and begging for mercy. 


Maybe it was Dad’s meal time prayers, full of grounding refrains and pauses in all the right places: “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”  


Or maybe it was the tidy stack of books to the side of his desk that always included a New York Times bestselling novel, a tome on world history or cultural anthropology, a classic of English (often Canadian) literature, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. 


Of course it could have been the move to the deserts of Northeast Province when I was twelve and Dad became the founding director of the Garissa Community Services Centre:

Me with my parents and three brothers outside our home in Garissa.

a revolutionary experiment in intertribal and interfaith communal living where  Kikuyus and Somalis, Muslims and Christians, Canadians and Africans committed to a simple way of life – living in thatched huts, eating together, praying together, and after the evening meal, laying outside on straw mats to count slow-moving satellites and identify constellations in a sky dense with stars together. 


Perhaps the parent-worship (Is there a term for this condition?) began with Dad’s seemingly endless capacity for new initiatives to improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor: his province-wide program to eradicate tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali, his partnering with World Vision to pay the school fees of thousands of Somali children, his irrigation projects that defied the odds for farming the desert by pumping water up from the Tana River, his dream of a House of Prayer to be shared by Muslims and Christians with a resource library to mitigate stereotypes and counter centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism and bloodshed.  


Dad in his Somali wrap and sandals giving a tour of the irrigation project on the Tana River.


Or maybe it had something to do with Dad’s height and the way he walked across the desert sand in his ma’awis (traditional Somali wrap) and sandals.  He was easy to spot and everywhere Dad went bystanders and children stopped and turned, calling out his Somali name: “Ali Dheri, Ali Dheri” (literally Tall Ali). 


All I know is that by the time I left Africa in 1982 to start my undergrad at Trent University I found myself the daughter of a living legend. This was a huge source of motivation and pride for me as I ventured into my early adult years. I strove to live a life as large as his had been. 


Then, only six years later, abruptly and without warning (for reasons outside the scope of this narrative), my parents left Africa and returned to restart their lives in Canada.


And almost immediately the myth of Ronald Ward began to unravel.


Of course I didn’t notice at first. The unravelling happened slowly and over time, and besides I had my head buried deep in my own life on the other side of the country. 


Nor was it a case of Dad not finding meaningful work back in the land of his birth. Indeed, he was as innovative as ever in reimagining his life back in Canada. But it was never quite the same. 


Dad in his broom closet of an office trying to bridge Toronto churches and the Somali diaspora.

First he tried to interest the Toronto churches in the Somali diaspora at their doorstep but the results were meagre, the divide too great.


He shifted his focus to peace work in the Horn of Africa and initiated negotiations between guerrilla insurgents, church organizations, and embassy staff. But peace work is notoriously difficult and he didn’t have the diplomatic credentials to make a lasting impact. 


Meanwhile back in Northeast Kenya, the interfaith community that he had established, and that was to be the breakthrough in Muslim/Christian relations, split down tribal and religious fault lines and disbanded. When I took my two young children and husband to Garissa in 2005 all that was left to show of my childhood home was a cement pad half-hidden by drifting sand.


Dad’s final initiative was to invest in a herd of thirty-five camels. He rallied stakeholders in Canada to back his vision for a dairy transporting anogel (camel milk) from Northeast Kenya to the growing population of Somalis in Montreal, Toronto, and Edmonton. But Dad was in over his head. The bureaucracy imposed by Agriculture Canada was confounding and his camels succumbed to famine and disease. In a single season he lost the whole herd. The dairy never materialized.

Dad with a newborn in the camel herd he sponsored.

All Is Vanity

Shortly after that  Dad woke up one day and said “I’m done”, and just like that he was retired. When we visited that summer he was in a state of profound discouragement and spoke openly about failure. Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” he said on more than one occasion, and took to quoting William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. 


Instead of letting Dad grieve his losses or, more to the point, instead of grieving them myself I pushed back. “There are other ways to measure success, Dad,” I’d say, trying to get the narrative back on track. My own kids were young then, listening on. I didn’t want them to experience their grandfather as a defeated old man.  


And thus began my self-imposed and exhausting midlife work of shoring up Dad’s legacy which, possessively, I felt belonged as much to the next generations as to him.  The legacy wasn’t his to squander. All our lives were tied up with it. It needed to be safe-guarded.


The next dimension of Dad’s life to start crumbling was his health. Radiation treatments for prostate cancer destroyed his thighs and the man who had once walked-with-camels now needed help standing up and sitting down. I ordered handle bars for the toilet and became a ready expert at wiping urine from the bathroom floor when we would visit from Vancouver. I couldn’t bear to see my kids plugging their noses behind their grandfather’s back.


Next it was the breakup of his marriage. Mom moved to Toronto to liberate herself from the patriarchy and into life on her own terms, and Dad was left alone rambling around in the Anchorage, our heritage home on the Otonabee River. This shook the legacy to its very foundations.  I became skilled at finding euphemisms for the word “divorce” when answering my kids questions about why their grandparents weren’t together anymore: “Oh, they just have different interests.” etc.

The view from the deck outside Dad’s second floor office window at the Anchorage.

When Dad took to drinking an extra glass of sherry in the evenings I became quite the expert at hiding the empties before the children could see them, and when he took to smoking a hookah pipe I was right there to clean up the ash trays and deodorize the sickly-smelling air in his second floor office. Even the stories Dad would tell the kids about Africa sounded eccentric. Unattached to anything real. I found our holiday time in Ontario exhausting. I was in a state of perpetual damage control. 


One day Dad phoned to tell me that his doctor had given him “a few years at most”.  I mention this because I distinctly remember the sense of relief I felt.  Maybe death was the one thing that would keep him from driving his life any further into the ground. Maybe a well-attended funeral service with all the right anecdotes could salvage the vestiges of his former glory. Maybe there was still time for the myth of Ron Ward to be salvaged.  


But the doctor had it wrong. Dad lived on, and the losses continued.


After Mom’s departure Dad was unable to cover the re-mortgage payments on the Anchorage and in the summer of 2015, the year I turned 50, our family home was sold.  My kids and husband came out from Vancouver to help with the move, carrying boxes of Dad’s things across the village to a rundown, two-bedroom on Strickland St. The shame of it hung in the air and I made sure there was no opportunity for anyone to speak of it. Not in front of the children. I kept everything upbeat. 


Abigail and Oliver at the barn behind the Anchorage, August 2015.


When we said good-bye the end of that summer I remember thinking how like a stranger the old man sitting alone in his wing-backed chair was to me.  For the next five years contact with Dad was minimal, reduced to weekly (if that) phone calls across the country. My kids had entered their teen years and with camps and entry-level jobs their summers were spoken for.  Their memory of their grandfather was fading.  


Then came the pandemic and the phone call late on the morning of November 27, 2020: Dad had suffered a stroke. With hospital wards at capacity and long-term care homes in crisis, options for the 24/7 supervision he needed were limited. Before I got off the phone I knew that I would go to Lakefield and care for Dad myself. 


The next day I flew across the country and before falling into an exhausted sleep on the couch in Dad’s spare room googled “how to change a catheter”. 


I was awakened in the night by Dad, disoriented and tottery, his tall frame filling the doorway.  I scrambled to steady him and discovered his long-john underwear was soaked through, cold and clammy on his skin. I hadn’t set the catheter properly.  I helped him pull his long-sleeved shirt over his head then had him balance himself on the back of a chair while I carefully pulled the bottoms over the tubing down the legs. At the end I was on my knees coaching him on how to lift his heavy feet, one at a time, out of each leg hole.


There were no scripted-for-TV lines, no heroic moments to recount at a funeral. Just Dad standing there, naked and shivering, and me on the ground with his urine-soaked clothing.  Outside the window light on snow cast a glow across his face and I saw that his cheeks were wet with tears.


“It’s okay, Dad. I’m right here, Dad. I won’t leave you.” 


I got him into dry sleepwear, changed his sheets, and settled him back into bed. When he was asleep I pulled out my laptop again and googled “how to give an old man a sponge bath”


And thus began our daily routine:

Dad settled in his wing-backed chair.

Me preparing a steaming basin of water and bathing Dad before he got out of bed every morning;

Him getting settled into his wing-backed chair for the day then combing his hair; 

Me cooking eggs and mashed potatoes and other simple salt and pepper seasoned meals;

Him sitting in his wing-backed chair, nodding in and out of sleep;

Me emptying his catheter every few hours; 

Him shuffling up and down the hall with his walker for daily exercise; 

Me tucking him into bed and turning out his light at night;

Him taking my hand and giving it a squeeze.


As Dad’s speech and general orientation returned we added looking-through-boxes-of-family-archives to our daily routine.  I laid the eras of our life as a family on the floor in front of him and together we worked our way through them all, acknowledging the accomplishments that stood for a time then faded away, mulling over events out of our control, marvelling at moments of beauty and goodness and, above all, pondering the miracle of family and friendships and the gift of life weaving its way through everything.


Nothing was off the table.  We spoke of it all. And drank coffee. And watched the American election and NHL hockey games with no spectators in the stands. I kept my arm through Dad’s and felt a tenderness and love for him like I had never known before.  Echoes of long ago prayers hung in the air:  “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”


Then came the phone call saying a place had opened up for Dad in long-term care. I was shocked. I hadn’t expected him to move up the waitlists this quickly. I had thought we’d have months together yet. We had been given twenty-four hours to decide. After a call with my brothers I knew it was the care Dad needed. 

Dad’s window at the Lakefield Extendicare.


I sobbed the day we moved him from his Strickland St. apartment to his new room in long-term care. With COVID-19 restrictions in place we weren’t allowed inside. The intake nurse dressed Dad in full PPE at the entrance and led him away down a hall painted pastel yellow.  


My kids flew out from Vancouver to help me pack up their grandfather’s apartment. 


Abigail and Oliver at the Sweeting Farm where their grandfather spent his summers as a child.

I assumed the role of family storyteller and took them on driving tours of Dad’s childhood haunts: the Bullock farm in Young’s Point, the Sweeting Farm on the 10th line of Smith Township, 622 Donegal St. in Peterborough where Dad had lived with his Aunt Gertie during WW II. I knew Dad would want his grandchildren to know about these places.


After lunch the three of us walked through the snow-covered village and over the bridge to Dad’s window at the back of the Lakefield Extendicare. I let the kids go ahead so that they could have time with their grandfather on their own. The gap in the window was only six-inches wide and icicles hung menacingly off the eavestrough above. Still I heard the laughter and the easy banter and witnessed the hands to the heart and other signs of deep affection that passed between them. 


Oliver and Abigail visiting with their grandfather outside his window at Lakefield Extendicare.


And as I watched my near-grown children interact with Dad it occurred to me that for the first time in their lives they were encountering their grandfather for who he was, not for who I wanted them to imagine him to be. 


One of my lifelong mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “Love is the attraction of all things toward all things, a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it.” 


There are probably as many ways to resist love as there are people on this planet. We all have our defences, hidden or otherwise. I’m grateful love got past mine. There are few freedoms like the freedom of no longer having to protect yourself from the journey your heart longs to take you on.


Dad from the other side of his window at Lakefield Extendicare.


Oliver at the dairy farm.

The Milkmaid’s Tale

Pif’s in labour.

The pre-dawn text lights up our shoebox of a bedroom. I roll off the side of the bed so as not to wake my husband, grab my work clothes from a hook on the back of the door and get dressed in the living room to the light of the Christmas tree.

Let it be a girl. Please let it be a girl.

Thankfully science is on side. The genetic engineering seems to be working. Almost all live births now are girls. If it’s a boy we’ll send notice and the buyers will come to take him away.

My face looks back at me out the living room window, superimposed over the lights of Vancouver’s distant downtown. I use the reflection to pin back my bangs and notice my car at street level below entombed in a layer of ice.


The universe maintains its indifference and I begin rummaging around the living room for a makeshift ice scraper.

People often ask how we can be so cruel as to send the boys away. I explain that Hammingview is a females-only world. “Theoretically we could sustain ourselves for a hundred years without a male in sight.” The next line of scrutiny is predictable and I try not to sound callous. “Sperm is stored in the deep freeze. It has no expiry date.”

So if Pif’s firstborn is a male I’ll do what I do every time a boy is born at Hammingview- I’ll rub my thumb over his cheek while he chugs down a bottle of colostrum, his eyes rolling to the back of his head with pleasure. Then I’ll step to the side when they come for him and remain willfully ignorant of how he meets his end.

People persist. They want to know if the mothers object when their newborns are taken. “Some do”.  We endure them crying out as we work. But most are conditioned to look the other way, their eyes large and silent, revealing nothing.

I circumvent further interrogation by redirecting focus to the Hammingview nursery. “A room chock-a-block full of baby girl cuteness,” I gush. “It’s hard to keep track of whose daughter is whose.”

The first time I walked through the nursery my eyes smarted. Yvonne was touched by my entry-level sentimentality. Hammingview 101. Then she hastened to warn me not to get over-attached. “They don’t all make it,” she said with feigned objectivity.

Within 24 hours I was over-attached.  It’s a mandatory pitfall for novices at Hammingview. A rite-of-passage for the uninitiated, if you will.

The newborn responsible for breaching the low-lying defences of my heart arrived into this world before the sun was up on January 6. I named her for the day on the Christian calendar when the three kings were said to have visited the Christ Child: Epiphany.

Pif for short.

The bond between Pif and me developed on the side like a secret between friends. She’d await my arrival each day and when Yvonne wasn’t looking I’d spoil her with cuddles, warmed-up milk, and extra rations of cereal. But most of all Epiphany loved it when I sang her dredged up and half-remembered folksongs from my childhood though I’d be careful to stop short of the end verses when things take a turn for the worst. Like when my darling Clementine drowns in a vat of brine down in verse six:

Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine.

But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.

While my attachment to Pif deepened so did a growing unease that I was setting her above the rule of law at Hammingview. “She’s got attitude alright,” a colleague offered when I asked. At Hammingview “attitude” is code for trouble. So as Pif and her cohort turned the corner on adolescence and prepared to move in with the other Hammingview teenagers I decided to make the break. There was no final good-bye. I simply didn’t show up for work the day of the move. Epiphany had come of age. This would be a new chapter in her life.


I start. It’s Oliver standing in the hallway, his pyjama bottoms hanging off his lanky 16-year-old waist.

When I tell him about the text his eyebrows lift. He knows what Pif means to me.

Oliver was alarmed when he first heard that I had a job at Hammingview. Hires from the outside are rare for the industry. I had always worked in the non-profit sector with organizations designed to set society’s hard-done-by back on their feet. When burnout set in I craved manual labour that paid by the hour, gave me back my weekends, and asked little of my heart.

Which is how I mustered the courage to walk up the drive of Hammingview Farms unannounced and inquire about employment. Standing against a bleak November sky Yvonne looked at me suspiciously. “You aren’t one of those activists with a camera hidden inside your coat, are you?” The question confused me.  I thought I was applying to work in the most benevolent industry known to humankind.

My naivety served me well. Yvonne offered me a job on the spot and in keeping with expectations my first few days at Hammingview were exhilarating. The primal connection with this improbable community of lactating mothers was immediate and all in the context of the rhythmic pulsing of the pumps and the steaming-warm sloshing of life’s most sustaining miracle: milk. It had been years since I had weaned Oliver yet the travail of breastfeeding came back to me as though it were yesterday: the involuntary let-down, the frustrations with latching, the cracked and bleeding nipples that never get a break, the ever-lurking risk of mastitis, the engorged mammary glands when milking is delayed, hard as rocks and painful as hell.

“That industrial grade spatula might work,” Oliver proposes as a solution to my ice-removal conundrum before disappearing into the bathroom.

When he was four a Mexican playmate convinced him to set a basin of water and a shoe outside the back door on the eve of Epiphany. “While you are sleeping the Three Kings will stop by your house to give their camels a drink,” insisted his young friend. The next morning Oliver awoke to a tipped and emptied water basin and a shoe spilling with candy. He stood silent for a long time looking out through the slats on our back porch pondering all that had transpired in the darkness on our soggy, East Van lawn.

When he emerges from the bathroom he offers to scrape the car off for me.

“I’ve got it, buddy. You go back to bed.”

For months my decision to cut ties with Epiphany seemed sound. I stuck to the discipline of it, attending to the flow of new arrivals into the nursery as a way of filling the space made empty by Pif’s departure.

Then mid-morning on no-day-in-particular my resolve came up short. This was all the excuse I needed to abandon whatever it was I was doing in the nursery and go in search of her.  She wasn’t difficult to find, lying on the grass with a few friends, her black and white coat glinting in the early summer sun. It occurred to me then how clueless she was about what lay ahead and how these would be the most carefree days of her life at Hammingview. It didn’t seem right to interfere. I turned my back and walked away, glancing over my shoulder for one final look, and there she was!  Standing apart from the others, looking at me.


My half-whisper anticipated a well-deserved snub.

Instead Epiphany tossed her head and ran at me with such force I had no time to brace myself for the 700-lb display of adolescent affection. I was knocked to the ground on contact. Laughing I got to my knees and, just like in the movies, threw my arms around her neck promising never to abandon her again.

I wasn’t present when she was inseminated and only learned of her pregnancy when I saw her name on the board. It was in a list with others under the word “confirmed”. While this news meant that her unstructured days of running in a pack and watching the fields turn colour were at an end it also, and more importantly, meant she’d be allowed to stay on at Hammingview. At least for now. Some of the girls “don’t take”. Their names appear on the board under the word “open”. If too many open months pass their names are erased and that’s the last we see of them.

Oliver watches me pull on my boots.

“You okay?” he asks. He knows what’s at stake. 

Hammingview stories are dinner fare at our house. He’s well acquainted with the shortlist of potential outcomes, each with its own variation on misfortune.

There’s Tilly whose daughter was stillborn and Jewel whose wasn’t. Yet where Tilly let milk flow like a tributary of the Fraser River in spring, Jewel wouldn’t relinquish an ounce. No amount of pleading could switch on the oxytocin release mechanism in her brain. A week later the count was out and I knew Jewel had been taken.

Agnes stories are a favourite. I refer to her fondly as the Mother Superior for having given a lifetime of service. Her badge of honour is a limp. It won’t be long before the truck comes for Agnes.

Then there is Dori. Oliver knows it would please me if Pif had even an ounce of Dori’s spunk. She is legend at Hammingview for staging a revolt. It seems she had no intention of being impregnated a second time. Alerted by the syringe and latex gloves neatly laid out on the dispensary table she made a spontaneous break for freedom that left an air gate dangling by a hinge. We found her later that morning at the neighbours’ and had her home by lunch. The next day Dori was “done” and now her belly, like a ripening sadness, grows fuller and heavier by the day.

  “Yah. I’m okay.” I give Oliver a muted smile. “Thanks for asking.”

On my way to the door I stop on impulse at the alcove where our nativity scene is displayed through the Christmas season. The god-baby looks placidly out at the world from his fabled bed of straw.

“You shouldn’t have come,“ I say sullenly. “This world doesn’t do well with ambiguity.”

Oliver heeds my dip into despair before stepping over by my side. Then, with the deliberation of a chess master, he picks up the lone cow resting outside of the stable behind two sheep, removes the three kings from their place at the centre of the action, and sets the broad-faced matron-of-milking-mothers down in the coveted spot beside the manger within reach of the infant’s outstretched hand.

He holds the cow’s back for a moment as though to check for unforeseen danger. Then, releasing his fingers from the game board, he looks me in the eyes and punctuates the move with a grin.

So this is what I want to know. Why does my response to this 16-year old son of mine fall half-a-life time short of what’s in my heart? Why, when what I want is to give him one of those bear hugs that used to leave him laughing and gasping for mercy as a child; why, when what I want is to find just the right words to thank him for accepting me for the off-script mom that I am; why, when what I want is to let him know how fiercely I love him, do I manage nothing more than to hold up the spatula between us.

It’s not the response of my heart but when he gives the spatula the high five I’m looking for I know it’s response enough. I open the door and head outside into the frosty darkness.

* Story longlisted for CBC’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize