Wednesday, October 26, 2016

So, This Happened.

I’m standing in a smallish bedroom. At least, it was a bedroom. Now, it’s mostly empty except for a couple of pieces of furniture. A pale grey light washes in through the window and outside, October isn’t having her best day. An empty bar fridge hums in the corner and a plug-in lamp version of Mother Mary sits on a low table, a small bulb doing its best to cast a glow while Mother Mary looks resigned. I know how she feels. Still, the worn wood floor, marked here and there after nearly 70 years of life, adds warmth to the room and there is a sense that, if you stand still long enough,the years will reveal themselves, one scene at a time.

The house in which this room can be found is newly purchased by my husband and myself. We live behind it and when it came on the market we snapped it up, eager for the potential. Maybe we’ll subdivide. Perhaps we can flip it? Let’s clean it up first, put our 20year old son in there with some roommates and think about it for a while. Mundane decisions made with the assumption that life would carry on much as it had done. Life being life, that’s not what happened. But back to the room.

The last time I was in here, it wasn’t quite this clean. A young man had lived in here and boys will be boys with their wet towels on the floor and piles of dirty laundry. Sean, a chef and a musician, had moved into the house six weeks earlier when a previous tenant moved out. I had never met him while he lived in the house but now, two weeks after all the tenants moved out, I feel like I know him quite well. That’s what happens when you pack up someone’s life for them.

Three weeks ago I had what I would consider one of the worst days of my life so far. It started with a surprise lay-off from my job of 18 years. Something about downsizing. My work being absorbed by the department. Would I like to bump another employee out of their position perhaps? Take a package? It was all over in a matter of minutes and included the words: “there’s no need to return to the workplace”. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like your life is a movie, I don’t recommend this one. I much would have preferred  Star Wars… but I digress.

Fast forward a few hours later, most of which passed in a blur of tears and shock, and I was sitting with my husband in his car in a traffic jam when my phone rang. It was my daughter. Mum! (Yes?) Where are you? (Stuck in traffic…) The police were here! (Why?) Someone died in the house we just bought! (WHAT? WHO?) You have to call him! (Oh My GOD) When will you be home? Why aren't you at work? Is everything Ok? (We’ll be home soon, Honey, and everything will be OK…)

I phone the cop and it turns out the story goes like this: one of the upstairs tenants, a young man, Sean, had passed away in his bedroom two days before and had been found by the downstairs tenant that morning. The police and the coroner had come and gone and now, as the landlords, we were responsible for the deceased’s belongings until such time as his next of kin could be notified and arrangements made. And by the way, did we, by chance, know who his next of kin were? And also, please be careful when you enter the room. Wear gloves.

Later that evening my family and I are in the kitchen processing. I’ve just told the kids I lost my job, (Why, Mum?) and we’re talking about how death and why death and where death and my phone rings again and it’s Sean’s mother. All the air leaves the room in one big rush and I breathe it all back in before saying, mumbling, trying to find the right words and failing, and settling on something about being so sorry, so very very sorry. She’s calling from New Brunswick. It’s late there – one in the morning and she’s just learned that she has lost her only child, her beloved boy. I make it through the phone call in which we discuss what she would like me to do with Sean’s things (donate most of them to someone who could use them) but could I look out for a wall hanging she made for him of his dog? And also, a Christmas wall hanging? Yes, of course, I say, anything, anything at all that I can do for you. I’m shaking. She’s so sweet and I can hear the pain in her voice sharp and soft like the point of a shadow. I take down her address and phone number and we agree to speak again soon. “He was a good boy” she says, her voice breaking. “I loved him very much”. I tell her I’m sure he loved her very much too. We hang up. I lose it.

A week later and my mum (bless her caring, generous heart) and I are standing in Sean’s room sweeping up the last little bits of one young man’s life. It’s taken us two days but I have a box of things to send to Sean’s mum: the wall hangings, his set of chef’s knives, chef’s jackets embroidered with his name, cookbooks, journals, a laptop, his wallet and his handmade quilt embroidered with the words ‘For Sean, love Mom, 2011’. I enclose a card telling her that the wall hangings and quilt had occupied places of pride in Sean’s room and that he had obviously loved them very much.  I hope she won’t notice the tear drops on the card.

Since then I have spent time wondering how it is that we get to know each other.  Does familiarity need time or can we gain it through one life-changing experience? I don’t know what Sean’s voice sounds like or how he walks, I don’t know the nature of his laugh. But, as I made my way through the layers in his room, I learned much about Sean. Baking sheets sat next to guitar cases. Recipes were jotted down on pieces of notebook paper next to a poem, next to a song. Beer cans lay beside a laptop, a pair of hockey tickets for last Saturday’s hockey game sat next to his Chef’s knives. An old pay stub lay under a note from a friend. A set of wrenches and a new bike tire took up space beside a worn pair of Doc Martens. Cook books and novels were stacked on a cabinet.Turns out you can learn a lot about someone just by the books on their bedside table.


As I packed up Sean’s things,I thought again of Sean’s mum. This was her little boy, just like your little boy, and just like my little boy, except now her little boy, who she held in her arms and watched grow from a tiny baby to an excited kindergartener, to a young man, is now made only of memories. Some paths in life are dangerous and some too hard from which to find a way home. Some swallow us up and there but for the grace of whatever spirit you believe in, go our sons and daughters too. It can happen to anyone, I have learned.

After I sent Sean’s mother his box of belongings, and gave away the remainder of his possessions, I found one of his recipes in the kitchen. I’m sharing it here in the hope that you can share it, too, and keep Sean’s memory alive. I’m doing it for his mother’s sake.


Sean’s Poppyseed Flat Bread
Flour                           220 ml
Fresh rosemary             30 ml
Poppy seeds                  15 ml
Salt                                5 ml
Water                         180 ml
Olive oil                       60  ml

Combine the flour, rosemary, poppy seed and salt.
Add water and oil. Knead 2 minutes.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 230 C. Place baking stone or cookie sheet in oven. Take golf ball sized dough and roll very thin. Bake until crisp and golden, cool slightly, brush with oil and sprinkle with salt.

Serve with love.

Thanks for reading,


*This blog is published with the permission of Sean’s dear mother, who loved her son so very much.