I knew something was up a few months ago, when Chris told me he was going to Ontario for "a friend’s wedding". Chris is rarely that vague. More often than not, he’ll include a name, even if it’s someone I don’t know.
A month or two later, I got the call. It was Gerry, phoning long distance from Bermuda, with "big" news. Seeing as Sam (Gerry’s girlfriend) had given birth to their son Alex on March 2nd, it was doubtful the news was "Sam’s pregnant". This was something different ... they were getting married.
The early secrecy was because Gerry wasn’t sure of who was going to be invited, and who wasn’t. Not wanting to hurt feelings, no-one was originally to know, unless they’d been invited. Chris and Gerry have been close friends for years (having once shared an apartment for a year), which is why he was invited early on.
Chris and I were to fly out to Ottawa for the wedding. Stuart and Therese were also invited, but were conveniently already in Ontario due to another wedding. Chris was then invited to a second wedding (although it would come before Gerry’s) — Gerry’s brother Andre, who was getting married the day before.
Confused? Good, most people were. (Originally, the primary wedding was Andre’s. Gerry and Sam were holding a "christening" the following day for their son. Little did most people know that the christening would be closely followed by a wedding.)
Chris caught the red eye from Calgary on the 13th, arriving early Saturday morning in Ottawa. I would follow seven hours later — I didn’t feel the need to get to Ottawa so quickly. My flight was mostly uneventful, seated next to a young couple and their eight month old son. We chatted on and off throughout the flight. The meal was unremarkable, though not terrible. The movie was "Josie and the Pussycats"; although I would have normally watched it, it’s not the sort of movie I want to watch at that hour of the morning.
Pearson was a little quieter than the previous few times I’d flown through it, though being the middle of July probably was a contributing factor. I was to switch to a Rapidair flight to Ottawa, although someone had neglected to give me a gate at which to find my flight. Luckily, I figured out that if you followed the signs that read "Ottawa / Montreal", they led to where I had to go.
The Ottawa flight was equally uneventful. At barely an hour, it was just long enough for the flight attendants to quickly hand out "snacks" (which was a half turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on focaccia, a cup of some strange (albeit very tasty) pasta salad, and a pair of cookies). I found it ironic that the "snack" was far better than the breakfast.
Arriving in Ottawa, I found myself searching for familiar landmarks. It had been five and a half years since I’d last been to our nation’s capital, and I was anxious to see how much it had changed. The only landmark I could see under the partly cloudy skies was the NSC’s wind tunnel.
Whipping through the terminal, I soon found myself in the baggage claim area, looking for my friend Rebecca. However, we managed to miss each other in the tremendous sea of people that had formed around the door. It took us nearly ten minutes to meet up, but only when I spotted a young woman who looked vaguely familiar.
The last time I’d seen Rebecca had been 3 May 1996, the day that she, Stefan, Dhar, and I had returned from a break-neck tour of the United States. (Stefan and Dhar I saw a couple months later when they were passing through Oakville.) She looked only a little older (most likely due to the students she had been teaching) and her hair was much shorter with a few blonde streaks, but she looked otherwise the same.
We quickly exited the terminal and headed for her car. After calling Stefan to let him know we were headed back to their home, we resumed our "how are you doing?" conversation. It was a little awkward at first. The one thing I’ve found is that when you communicate with someone through email over an extended period of time, face-to-face conversation is always a little troublesome, much like a beginner with a manual transmission.
Rebecca drove us deep into the heart of Ottawa. Once upon a time, it had been much closer to the south of Ottawa. But in the last five-odd years, Ottawa’s population has exploded, and houses were in places where I only remembered farmland and forest. It was, to say the least, odd.
Stefan and Rebecca are in the midst of a massive renovation (one that will be ongoing for some time). After we got resettled, Rebecca gave me the grand tour of the their home. It’s a ’50s tract home built for the returning soldiers of WWII. Like most of the homes in the area, it’s undergoing a few changes. (Though none quite so drastic as the tear-down/rebuilds a couple blocks away.) When complete, I’m sure their home will be a showpiece in the area.
The conversation eased up, and soon we were bantering like we’d only seen each other a month ago. As we talked, I found pictures of their children, Eric and Thea. I hadn’t seen either of them in years — I hadn’t seen Thea since she was about six months old. Eric was only about six at the time.
When Eric entered the house (at his mother’s request), he didn’t recognize me. I didn’t think he would. But after a moment, when he was told that I’d since shaven and cut my hair, there was a sudden "oh yeah!" as the light came on. Then he said "hello" and ran back out the door.
Sigh To be (much) younger again...
Stefan arrived home shortly thereafter, having spent the morning in a business meeting. It looked for a moment like Stefan and Rebecca had swapped hair — his was now much longer and (seemingly) more brown than I remembered.
Conversation veered more into the technical from there, as Stefan and I caught up. This gave Rebecca a chance to start on dinner. (We had been rather indecisive with what we were going to do about dinner, so we ended up staying in.)
Dinner at Stefan and Rebecca’s is ... interesting. The food is delectable, and the entertainment is well worth the price of admission. Eric is a natural comedian. Even though he’s not even a teenager yet, he’s well on his way to driving his parents nuts ... add two spectators (Rebecca’s friend Marnie and yours truly), and the comedy just keeps rolling (especially since Marnie eggs Eric on, inadvertently or otherwise). Even Thea gets into it — most likely through influence from her brother.
Following dinner, we adults decided to make a run for the bars, so we could ditch the kids for a while. Thea went to a sleepover at a friends, and Eric guarded the house. This left the four of us to find some corner of Ottawa to curl up into. But first, I was awarded a quick tour of the new and improved Ottawa.
Since I last lived in Ottawa (summer 1994), much has changed. More companies have moved in, most notably JDS, a very large fibre optic company that seems to be edging out Nortel as the largest company in the area. The main facility they have there is immense, and it’s only one of several buildings JDS has in the Ottawa area.
And then there are the houses. Endless tracts of houses. In places where you used to have to drive for long period of time before hitting a landmark, there are houses. Lots of houses. I don’t know what Ottawa’s population is up to now, but it was just shy of a million (Ottawa-Hull, to be precise) in 1994 — it’s gotta be pushing two million by now.
After driving around for about 45 minutes, we ended up downtown along Elgin Street. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on Elgin, although it had been a very long time ago. Many of the stores I had known were gone. New ones had sprung up in their places, some were still vacant.
Finding my hotel, I took a moment to drop off my things, so I could proceed gadget-free for the remainder of the evening. (Admittedly, a bit of a naked feeling, not having something with you for wireless communication or telling time.) Returning to the car, we turned onto MacLeod and drove over to Kent. My last apartment in Ottawa still stands on the corner of MacLeod and Kent. It’s still ugly, it’s still scummy, but surprisingly enough, hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw it.
Much of downtown Ottawa has changed. More condos, less stores. The movie theatres are almost all gone — only the ones in the World Exchange Centre and Rideau Centre are left. Many familiar sites are gone, replaced with something newer. Even the Parliament Buildings have a fresh sheeting of copper — the distinctive green colour won’t be back for a decade.
The Market, surprisingly, hasn’t changed that much. Aside from CHUM/City now occupying space in Market Mall for their radio and TV stations, the Market is almost the same as when I was last there. Some of the bars and restaurants have changed, but the atmosphere is the same, and some bars (most notably the Laff and the Dom) probably haven’t been cleaned, either.
Parking in the Market, we ended up bar hopping a while, running from the Dom (where we found Dave, one of Rebecca and Stefan’s many friends, and dragged him around with us), to Darcy McGee’s, to the Heart and Crown before running out of steam. I couldn’t help but remark at how much I missed being in Ottawa in the summer. It had been a lot of fun the two summers I was there — even when I had been trapped in Kanata that first year — and a part of me wanted to move back there to relive it all again.
But I can’t dwell in the past.
So it was with a twinge of sadness that I had to bid Stefan and Rebecca farewell when they dropped me off at the hotel later that night. I didn’t know when exactly I’d see them again — it had been over five years since the last time, which I don’t hope to repeat.
I awoke a little later the following morning than I’d planned, but not enough to make us late. I showered, shaved, donned my best Hawaiian attire, and Chris and I grabbed a cab for east Nepean, and Gerry’s wedding.
We arrived a little early to the house Andre rented with a few friends (at least, I assume it was a rental), but not before anyone else. Some strange people I didn’t recognize were already there. The rest were all busy getting ready for the afternoon. Gerry was one of them.
He was under the crab apple tree at the back of the yard, apparently giving instructions. Being busy, there was only time for a quick "hello" before he ran off to finish whatever he was working on. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed — I hadn’t seen Gerry in two and a half years, so I expected a bigger "hello". But considering that this was his day in the limelight, I wasn’t about to say anything.
Chris and I milled around for a while until others we knew began to show up. First, it was Marek and Brenda (who, along with Gerry and I, are ex-employees of Arkipelago in Toronto, where we all met), followed soon by Stuart and Therese. Before I knew it, Kathryn had arrived, with Dan in tow.
The theme of the day was Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Probably because it’s an easier fashion to track down than "Bermudan". Aside from black knee-high socks and longish shorts, I’m not really sure what Bermudan fashion entails. Either way, it meant that no-one had to wear anything truly uncomfortable.
The first order of the afternoon was Alex’ christening. Although born three-and-a-half months earlier, it’s a little more convenient to bring the baby to the family if the family is concentrated in a small area. Andre’s wedding happened to provide the perfect set-up for just such an occasion.
I’d never seen Alex before. This was my first meeting with the young lad, but I suspect it’ll be a few years before he knows who I am. It was also my first time seeing Gerry with his son, a bit of a creepy thing too, I might add.
Don’t get me wrong — Gerry’s gonna be a great dad. It’s just that ... well ... he’s a friend of mine who has a kid. It’s a little unnerving at times. A scant five years ago, most of my friends were unmarried. Now there are but a small number who aren’t either married or common-law. Soon, it’ll be only a small number who don’t have kids. You never seem to notice how old you are until an old roommate introduces you to their five year-old whom you haven’t met before.
Gerry and Sam walked out with their son, quite proud to present him to a group of people, most of whom had not seen Alex outside of emailed photographs. He was bundled up in a (small) white gown, and clinging to his father. The ceremony was short — it was my first christening (not counting my own, which admittedly I don’t quite recall anymore), so I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to happen.
The christening over, Sam and Alex disappeared into the house while Gerry mingled. (Gerry mingles well. Perhaps too well.) A moments later, Alex reappeared, dressed in his new Hawaiian shirt. I didn’t know they even made baby sizes, but I guess that makes sense. Denise cued some music, and to the tune of Hot Chocolate’s "You Sexy Thing", Sam was led out by her bridesmaid across the deck, down the stairs, and up the aisle, taking a momentary pause to get into the groove of the song.
The wedding itself was simple and sweet. No singing (which was beneficial, ‘cuz no-one really wants to hear me sing), no kneeling (which would have made taking pictures of the event a bit tricky), and there was a lot of laughter. Basically, the way a happy event should be...
Gerry cried. A lot. He’s been waiting for this for years — I remember talking with him about it a few months ago, and how much he wanted to marry Sam. I guess it was his dream come true. Can’t say I blame him for being a bit teary-eyed ... most people were, too.
The wedding over, everyone clapped and cheered and cried, and then watched as Gerry and Sam made everything nice and legal. Almost as soon as the newly wedded (and christened) family was presented, Gerry asked Jamie to come forward for his announcement. Jamie asked Denise (Gerry’s sister) to come up to the front, where he promptly proposed.
Kleenex would have made a killing.
The mug shots came shortly thereafter, with various members of the now much larger family taking turns with the newlyweds and newly-engaged. I took this opportunity to introduce myself to Sam, whom I never met before. Strangely enough, my parents have — during a stopover in Bermuda while on a cruise, they met Sam when they called up Gerry. (My father had originally wanted to crash Gerry’s wedding as a surprise.) Sam seemed somewhat disinterested, but more than likely had no clue who the heck I was anyway. Besides, she probably had to meet several people that day.
People started to break up into groups, where we all sat, chatted, ate, drank, and were merry. Some of us doubly so, since Gerry had made sure that the food included a whopping amount of Montreal smoked meat from Schwartz’s deli. Many of us revelled in a much-missed taste of great deli meats.
As the afternoon drew into evening, the number of people slowly dwindled. Soon, there were but a few left — most of the family was now gone, leaving mostly friends. Sam and Gerry took the opportunity to start unwrapping the plethora of gifts they (and Alex) had received. I can only imagine what the crate they pack everything into will look like...
After helping to clean up, word travelled around that dinner might be in order. A quick survey of the people who actually live in Ottawa (primarily Denise and Jamie) suggested that we go to Mama Grazzi’s, an Italian restaurant down in the Market. We planned to meet at 8:30, with some of us going a little earlier to obtain seats. There would be 14 of us, and Mama didn’t take reservations...
Pulling teeth couldn’t be that hard. Even with six of us standing at the door of the restaurant, they wouldn’t even consider starting to move tables around for us. (Once I saw much room they had available, I was a little curious as to their initial unwillingness to help out what would inevitably be a large tip.) After about an hour of cajoling, pestering, extreme patience and a lot of "thank yous", we managed to get enough tables to seat 14.
Mama Grazzi’s isn’t the fastest restaurant in Ottawa ... but the food is certainly worth waiting for. It’s almost enough to make me want to take a longer vacation there the next time I go back. Besides, it gave us a sufficiently long time to sit and chat.
You wouldn’t have known that it was a wedding party. The only ones still in Hawaiian garb were those of us who came direct — Stuart, Therese, Kathryn, Dan, Chris, and myself. The rest all went back and changed. Otherwise, we looked like any other large group of people out for a good time.
Dinner having ended, we all broke our separate ways. Therese and Stuart headed back to Therese’s parents place in Carp. Kathryn and Dan went back to their hotel room. The rest of us walked to the Travelodge where the majority were staying the night. There Chris and I bade farewell to Gerry, Sam, Brenda, and Marek. That pang of departure hit me again — I hoped it wouldn’t be another three years before I saw Gerry (and Sam and Alex) again. I also hope that next time I saw Brenda and Marek, it wouldn’t be at a wedding...
I woke a little earlier the next morning, wanting to get a quick tour of Ottawa before catching my train. I wandered up O’Connor, and then over to Elgin before arriving at the War Memorial. I hadn’t really taken pictures of it before, and my attempts to catch the lighting of it the night before were dismal at best. It shone in the morning sun, the blue sky contrasting nicely on the cream granite.
As I took pictures, I started to hear a strange sound — a marching band. At first, I thought I was just hearing things. But it kept getting louder. I looked down Elgin, only to see a full-blown regimental marching band coming up the street. At first I couldn’t figure out why — it wasn’t a holiday, it wasn’t a weekend — but after a moment, it hit me: The changing of the guard.
I hadn’t seen the changing of the guard since I was a little kid, and my parents first took my sister and I to Ottawa. At the time, I thought Ottawa really dull. But unless it’s filled with cartoonish mascots and rollercoasters, I suspect a lot of kids would find Ottawa pretty dull. Heck, I know a lot of adults who find Ottawa really dull...
As I walked down to see the parade go by, I heard a noise behind me that sounded vaguely like someone falling over. Normally, I would turn around. Normally, I would see if that person needed help. For some stupid reason, I didn’t at first. A moment later, I did, and saw it was an old man who was having trouble getting up. Suddenly, I felt like there was a giant neon sign above my head that read: "Here stands a callous, self-centred jerk."
The man was okay, he was quickly rescued by his middle-aged son. Didn’t make me feel any better, though. Made me a lot more aware of things around me for the rest of the day, though.
I ended up racing the parade up to Parliament Hill, where the Changing of the Guard takes place. (For those of you interested, the parade enters Parliament Hill at 10:00am sharp — the bells in the Peace Tower ring almost right on cue.) Despite it being a Monday, there were people ringed all around the drill area. I stayed and watched as long as I dared, but before long (and before the ceremony was complete), I had to leave.
Chris and I checked out of the hotel at roughly 11:30, right on time for me to catch a taxi to the train station. I was going home — to Oakville, that is. I was going to visit with my family for a couple of days before going back to Calgary. Normally, I would have taken a plane, and covered the distance in an hour. But I felt like I needed to continue a burgeoning tradition in my life.
For two of the previous three years, I had taken a train trip on my birthday. Last year, I was so busy with work that I didn’t get to do anything interesting. So when I decided to make a side trip to Oakville on my birthday, I figured I’d do it with a little more style — I took the VIA train.
The last time I’d taken VIA was when my father was living in London, selling Ford tractors and construction equipment. This was in the mid-to-late 70s. All I remember of it was the really bad TV dinner I had in my father’s apartment (the cold french fries still seem to haunt me after all these years). I don’t remember much else, except that we’d taken VIA to get there.
Passenger trains in Canada aren’t what they used to be. Except in and around Toronto, where the GO Trains run on a tight schedule, you’d be lucky if your train runs right on time. But generally, if you’re going to take the train, time isn’t a big concern for you.
The trip runs diagonally through Ottawa, down through several towns I don’t know the name of, through Smith Falls (where my family used to travel through on the way to a cottage on Charleston Lake), to Kingston, Gananoque, Belleville, and then into the Toronto area. It’s about a four-hour trip, provided you don’t get held up by other trains. Which, of course, we did.
We got into Toronto at 5:20, about 35 minutes after we were scheduled to. After hopping off the train, I hustled into the GO lounge, got a ticket, ran onto a westbound GO Train, and continued my journey. I was in the Toronto city limits for all of about 30 minutes. My father picked me up in Clarkson and took me home.
There are probably a few of you who are wondering why I didn’t call you. If I was in Toronto, it doesn’t take much to pick up the phone and call, right? That is true, but I had something else in mind, or more specifically, someone else.
A couple of months ago, my family learned that my father had developed non-small cell lung cancer. A lifetime of smoking had finally done what I’d been expecting for two decades. Although I had gone home to see my family, my primary thoughts were with my father.
It’s not easy living 3,000 kilometres away when you learn of something like this, even if you are expecting it. You want to be there. You want to help. You want to be the one who can make everything all right, and make the sickness go away. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, knowing that you’re isolated, and have to rely on others for information, and hope that everyone else knows that you’re there, even if your body isn’t.
Needless to say, the family dynamic has changed a little. Instead of toddling along on our merry little way, we’re keeping an eye on things. As for dad, well, he’s in treatment, something I’m immensely proud of. Some people don’t go this route — they prefer to live as they did. But my father’s not going to take this sitting down — he’s going to do what seems to run in my family: be really, really, really stubborn.
I even went with him for one of his treatments at Credit Valley Hospital. I’d heard it was more like a country club than a hospital. It’s certainly nicer than most of the hospitals I’ve been in over the past three years. And the oncology room is comfortable. It could be nicer, that’s for sure, but over all it’s not that bad. I have to credit dad for putting up with the needles, too. He’s been a human pincushion for the past few weeks. I can’t even stand getting a booster shot.
The funny thing was everyone warning me about what he looked like. Frankly, I couldn’t see any real change. Maybe a little older (stress tends to do that), but otherwise none the worse for wear. He looked every bit as strong as the last time I’d seen him. And I’ve never seen him eat as much as he currently does — he eats more than I do!
I spent three days in Oakville with my family. Aside from close family friends who dropped by, I saw no-one else, and I talked with no-one else. It’s nothing personal, folks, but I have my priorities, and my family comes first.
Because of everything I’d heard before I came home, I was a little apprehensive. But upon leaving, I knew that things would be alright. I was able to board my plane, knowing without a doubt that he’ll be in great shape the next time I see him, in early September (I’m going to Toronto for another wedding).
So just to let you know, Dad, my thoughts are with you, as always. I don’t need to tell you to be strong, because you already are. I don’t need to tell you to have no fear, because you never have. Just keep following your heart and your head, and you’ll do no wrong.
Some say that everything they know in life they learned in Kindergarten. I learned it from my father.