PART OF THE THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES
Late July 2020
While Simon has turned toward his garden to immerse himself, elbow deep, in the earth and what grows there, we have both continued to raise our gazes to the sky and the trees—the poplars and maples, and the pines, so many of them, their towering, ramrod-straight trunks pockmarked by all of the lost branches under their umbrella-top canopies, marking the borders of our yard which is forested in a very Hudson-like way.
Last week, a hawk flew in from somewhere beyond sight, then settled in the grass at the side of the house to pluck the feathers from the avian victim it was perched upon. All we had heard was a piercing cry. Was it a robin? Or an immature bird plucked from one amongst the network of hidden nests we know to be there, invisible recipients of our love and concern.
With its wobbly, featherless prey in its talons, the hawk flew up and away, leaving behind a sad circle of mocha-coloured feathers in the grass. The alarmed birds settled down. A small creature had just lost its life.
A few days later, with Simon and I once again outside despite the swampy air and energy-leaching heat, and only the odd trill of a cardinal or robin floating in the dense atmosphere, a hawk—the same hawk?—swooped silently onto a branch of our big maple tree (it must have been the same raptor, hoping for easy pickings once again). I spotted it right away, of course, because it’s such a gorgeous creature: swift, silent, fierce, deadly.
This time, immediately, all hell broke loose in the pines. Birds—dozens and dozens!—had come alive, still invisible to us, shrieking and flapping their wings. The pine branches at the back of the yard shook and shivered. The grackles, especially, were having none of it. They shrieked and shrieked: Alert! Alert! Danger!, and where there had been quiet, there was suddenly pandemonium; a staccato mix of clashing screeches and a squawking choir…Alert! Danger! The grackles leading the lot, furious or terrified, I’m not sure, but holding their ground like they were firing AK-47’s.
Then, from the dark pines, a dotted black cloud of birds swirled up among the tree tops, then swept back down like a squadron to the place where the hawk must be—harassing, harrowing and bravely bullying the intruder until it finally flew off in search of an easier snack.
It was almost instantaneous: calm returned.
The grackles disappeared as if by magic. Invisible and now, silent. A robin sang. A few birds followed suit. A switch had flipped. But our hearts were still thumping. The decibels still echoing in the air.
We witnessed strength in numbers.
Courage is contagious.
* * * *
ENRAPTURED BY WILD TURKEYS
Since the end of June, Simon and I have been enchanted by the arrival of a new family in our yard: a wild turkey hen and her six chicks (also known as poults).
She showed up one day, lovely with her cream and coffee-coloured plumage and deliberate, regal walk (she is so different, this female, from the flocks of black-feathered, pink-headed wild gobblers that Christian and I spotted roaming like a street gang, just around the corner, a few summers ago).
She seemed so relaxed, adjusting her pace to the stumbling slowness of her chicks. That first time, she stayed on the periphery of our open yard, her bobbing, fuzzy contingent behind her.
She returned again, moving through the backyard. Her chicks were still all there—1,2,3,4,5,6, and growing. Like small, downy footballs. Apprehensive, I counted them several times. This hen has such a large charge. We stayed clear and made ourselves discreet, wanting her to feel safe and welcome and free to meander, plucking whatever they found from the freshly mowed grass.
Not long after, on a day when I was away, she returned with her brood. Standing at the kitchen sink, Simon spotted her just a few yards away on the patio, near our large deck. He grabbed his phone, and brilliantly captured Mama Hen become more daring, hopping right up onto the railing of our deck to sun herself, stretching out her wings, fanning her tail, and inviting her chicks to do the same (she clearly wants them as close to her as possible at all times).
They have been so lovely to watch and it pleases me that Mama Hen subverted my expectations by being serene in her maternal vigilance and quite trusting of us (we have tried never to intrude).
Our quiet vigilance was rewarded recently when we witnessed the most beautiful moment yet.
In the early evening, with supper finished, we were sitting in the den watching Jurassic Park (a strange kind of coincidence when you think that birds are the living creatures that are the most closely related to dinosaurs), when I noticed movement in the backyard trees. Brownish birds with tails that showed white tips, fluttering from ground to tree branch very tentatively. Something pinged inside my head and I thought : Those aren’t robins, they’re too big…So I got up to look and realized right away that the turkey chicks were back, and flying, or more precisely, with their mama’s encouragement they were fluttering their way up, a couple of branches at a time, one after the other, as soon as she showed them the way.
Clearly, they’ve been practicing Up! went one, then Up! went the next and so on, left, then right, branch above branch, till they were about two thirds of the way up the tree where the foliage is thinner, so we could see them clearly (and she could see danger coming).
The sun was setting—it was almost 8:30 I think. And then, to our rapture, they aligned themselves, all seven, along the same branch, three to one side of their mama and three on the other. And she spread her wings as the light became scarce, and wrapped them around her babies, who fidgeted and fussed a tiny bit, as we kept our secret watch.
When Simon and I each went to our rooms to read, we checked in on them. They hadn’t moved. I was up early the next morning, around 5 o’clock, and they were still there. But by the time I showered and dressed and sat down to eat something, and looked for them in the half light, they were gone. I’ve since read that wild turkeys see poorly in low light, and though they fly quite well at low altitude, they are more at ease up in the trees.
Simon found a giant single feather on the ground that morning.
We were both so moved by this. It was such a privilege to witness it. We didn’t try to photograph them up there, but that same morning, online, I found two photos that are almost exactly how they looked under their mother’s wings.
Since then, they have returned for several afternoon browses through the yard, and two more nights in our maple tree hotel.
It feels important to me that I should share these experiences with you. It’s because of the times, yes: these days saturated with thoughts of COVID-19 and its traces on every surface of the physical world and the hold it has on how we think and feel about life in the present and future and how these thoughts have, in fact, been completely reconfigured by the implications of the pandemic. But it’s also about what happened, inside this tumour-harbouring chest of mine, when the birds, large and small—the beautiful, winged creatures whose song and chatter is perhaps the most reassuring acoustic backdrop of life—flew right down to the ground nearby and allowed me a glimpse of existence at its most stark and essential.
What happened when I saw the mother turkey and her trail of babies in this “suburban” space is that my pulse quickened, my heart started pounding and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them. And that first evening, when I witnessed the large mother turkey marshalling all of her chicks fifty-plus feet up into a tree, I felt moved, and so did Simon. And we stayed there, at the window, mesmerized, enchanted, and feeling such joy that we had been graced by this example of dutiful motherhood, and the imperatives of Nature. I found myself cheering for her and her chicks: Go, go, up! Up!, and feeling giddy with the wonder of it all, doing head counts of the chicks every time they appeared, relieved and very grateful that she has kept them all safe.
I’m so lucky to be reminded of the life that finds its way into our world no matter what. Our garden grows lush and tall. The animals follow the rhythms of the seasons. They are agents of life. We are connected.
* * *
August 4th, 2020
In the human world—the one that is so fraught at present and so saturated with tension, fear, and apprehension—there are people who, I believe, have a talent for sensing and cultivating connection, as though they’ve always understood, in their very bones, that it’s the only meaningful way to live.
On the road I’ve been walking since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve learned to recognize how many such people were already part of my life, but I’ve also met so many more. And I think that it can’t be a coincidence.
The first couple of times I went to the CHUM, it was to see the surgeon who would decide what to do with my colorectal tumour, and if I’m remembering correctly, we arrived at the building where her office is from the street. I think that’s also the same way we came to see her the day my diagnosis of metastatic cancer was confirmed.
But since I was placed into the care of the oncology team, who work in Pavillon C, and my two years of treatment began, I have only ever entered the CHUM from metro level, which consists of a series of long, underground tunnels that eventually lead to the entrances of both the Centre de Recherche du CHUM (pavilion R) and the rest of the hospital centre, including Building C.
It’s precisely there, at the end of the second to last hall, at the confluence of streaming medical professionals, hospital workers, researchers, patients and family members, that I first heard the voice that rises above it all.
It’s the voice of a man speaking French, but not Québécois. While his French is surely that of an educated, eloquent man, my ears made out immediately that his accent is from a former French-speaking colony, containing traces of other languages. His speech rose above the chatter of people and their footfalls. It rose above the sounds of the ventilation systems and echoes in an almost constant verbal flow. When I got close enough, I saw that this man, dressed in a security guard’s uniform, wearing a cap and standing between the entrances to pavilion R to the right and the rest of the CHUM to the left, was visibly middle-aged, straight and fit. But unlike anyone I have ever met, anywhere, he greeted every single person who streamed past him with a thought, a phrase, an intention for the day or words of encouragement, and he did it all with a smile.
He still does. But I remember how, especially during those first weeks of treatment, it is he who set the tone for what I have come to associate with the CHUM.
«Bienvenue et bonne journée! » he says to some.
[“Welcome and have a good day !”]
« Gardez votre joie de vivre ! » he calls to others.
[“Keep you zest for life !”]
“Gardez votre bonne humeur!” [“Keep your spirits up ! ”]
« Chaque jour est une vie ! » [“Every day is a lifetime!”]
« Vous avez droit à 200 mg de bonheur gratuitement ! » [“You’re entitled to 200mg of complimentary happiness!”]
He always spoke to me and of course, from the very first moment, I smiled at him, said thank you, waved, and, magically, carried that smile on my lips all the way through the last bit of the tunnel and into my day at the hospital. And felt hopeful. These days, he tells me: “Restez positive!” (Stay positive!)
I’ve since learned that his name is Constantin Ntimamosi, that he has been working as a security guard at the CHUM for 9 years, and that in his previous life, he was a Congolese civil servant. What happened to this man? What forced him out of his native land (because I have no doubt that this is precisely what happened). How difficult must it be for him to stand in a long, sterile corridor for hours every day and greet the hundreds of people who walk past him?
In an interview he gave some time ago that’s available on YouTube, he says of his job that it’s:
“[…] Une bonne occasion de rentrer en contact avec le monde. »
“[…] A good opportunity to make contact with folks.”
Constantin Ntimamosi embodies in the most dignified way, a deep understanding that the meaning of life is found in human connection, and so, he explains:
“ […] Moi, je vise la communication parce que c’est ce qui me rapproche le plus des gens que je côtoie tout le temps. »
“Me, I strive to communicate, because it’s what allows me to get closest to the people I rub shoulders with every day.”
There comes a point in the interview when, looking out at the tunnel that is his workplace, he reveals something deeper inside himself, saying:
« […] C’est rien qu’un tunnel!
C’est un tunnel !
Quand je ne suis pas là, ce n’est qu’un tunnel comme tous les tunnels […]
Tu vois, il faut donner de la vie à toutes choses. »
“It’s just a tunnel !
It’s a tunnel !
When I’m not here, it’s just a tunnel like any other […]
You see, you have to make all things come alive.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the movement of men, women and children in the tunnel has weakened to a trickle. Constantin has so few people to greet–his days must be long and arid.
I discovered, on the few days when he wasn’t there to greet me when I arrived at the CHUM, that he is, truly, a bringer of life into his place of work. Without him, there’s a forlorn feeling in the passageway. It’s heartbeat is gone. I only learned of the video this year, but everything Constantin reveals in it is true to what I’ve felt emanating from him from the moment I first heard him.
« ‘Chaque jour est une vie’ », he explains to his interviewer. « J’ai entendu cette phrase à la radio quand j’étais petit. C’est une phrase capitale dans ma vie, car la vie est courte. On ne sait jamais quand on sera patient à notre tour.
“Every day is a lifetime. I heard this phrase on the radio when I was a child. It’s a crucial phrase in my life, because life is short. We never know when our turn to be a patient will come.”
“ Le monde me dit: “Mais vraiment, même si on n’a pas de soleil, mais au moins tu es là.
[émotion dans son visage]. Si quelqu’un me dit ça, qu’est-ce que je peux vraiment…Ça, c’est vraiment incroyable. »
“People tell me : “ But really, even if there’s no sun, well, at least you’re here.” [he is visibly moved] If someone says that to me, what can I do…It’s truly unbelievable.”
You may not be surprised to learn that the title of the CHUM video is:
« CONSTANTIN, AGENT DU BONHEUR »
or “CONSTANTIN, AGENT OF HAPPINESS. ”