WINNER OF THE 2019 NON-FICTION - THE SUSANNA VOTH WIEBE PRIZE
Stepping through the gap between the trees and thick riverside vegetation, I feel strongly that this is the place. An isolated clearing much like the ones I had seen earlier on the rocky bank of the Fraser River. They were occupied with fishermen, no one is here.
I walk across the crisp dry grass, towards a weathered tree stump, protrusive like a wart on a witch’s nose. After the brisk walk the muscles in my thighs twitch, and I inhale a few deep breaths to relax. I take off my backpack and rest it between my feet as my eyes sweep across my chosen spot. Moss envelops the sides and bottom of the stump. New shoots thrust stems, unfurling bright green leaves, through the dark hard soil; the beginnings of spring. The nightchilled air hangs still, waiting, as the timid dawn light signals the arrival of the day.
The cawing of a crow breaks the silence and startles me. I cast my eyes upward and spot him. He is perched on a top branch of a young lodgepole pine, watching me. It’s the same crow I noticed following me along the trail.
The sun is rising over the mountains, staining the feathery clouds apricot, salmon pink and mauve. Patches of grey sky break through the clouds and dissolving mist. I breathe in the cold, moist air and savour the woody earthy aroma. I notice an unmistakable musky note which reminds me of damp animal fur. ‘It is March thirteenth, too early for bears surely?’ I think.
I sit on a patch of the soft green moss, lean my back against the stump and stretch my legs out in front of me, crossing them at my ankles. I swallow a sip of water and return my water bottle to its position in my backpack. I take out my journal, read over my notes and recall my conversation with the First Nation Elder at the Friendship Centre.
“Welcome, what brings you to our Centre?” he began, as I followed him to the vacant table and benches towards the back of the hall. He was slender and tall, his long white hair tied back in a ponytail with a plain black elastic band. He signalled to a middle-aged woman and asked for tea with bannock. She scuttled off muttering.
I explained that it was almost two years since Heather, my daughter, had died, and while my Christian beliefs offered some solace, there was a gap I yearned to fill. I looked at him and noticed his prominent pointed nose and high cheek bones.
He nodded, “What do you know about our ways and why do you think they might help you?” He rubbed his hands slowly together and looked intently at me with dark close-set eyes.
“I want to recognize signs, like seeing a hummingbird in my garden and understand the message it brings,” I said.
He pressed his thin lips together and stroked his dimpled chin while the fingers on his right hand gently drummed the table. I told him about a book I had read, One Story, One Song by Richard Wagamese and how I was intrigued by the spiritual connection between the earth, animals and man.
He nodded, said he had read the book too and asked what else I knew. I mentioned another book I kept on my bedside table, Animal Spirit Guides by Chris Luttichau. I bought the book shortly after arriving in Canada, and I loved it so much I gave a copy to Heather.
The tea arrived with a plate stacked with four golden brown bannocks. After he thanked the woman, the Elder said he didn’t know the book or the writer.
“It’s basically an introduction for a novice and discusses Animal Spirit Guides and how Animal Spirits can help heal the past and give understanding and inspiration,” I explained.
He nodded and waited; his arms folded on the table.
“A section in the book describes a selection of animals, their qualities, habits and teachings.”
“Are there any of the animals described in the book that call out to you?” he enquired.
“When I read the book, I randomly pick an animal, and I always find something meaningful in the accounts, or something to inspire me.”
He remained silent and he drank his tea, so I continued. “At this time, I am drawn to Fox because she represents family, survival and voice. She teaches that we should not be held back by our traditions and prejudices, which is why I am looking beyond my Christian beliefs and want to consider some of your teachings.”
He smiled and gently took my hands in his, looked into my soul with his dark intense eyes and said, “I think you need to go on a medicine walk.”
“Okay,” I uttered with a frown.
“Medicine walks are precisely for answering a question or to give direction about something that is troubling you.”
“So, how do I go on a medicine walk?”
“First of all, take your walk alone. Remember to always ask Mother Earth for protection and guidance. Choose a site where there is little chance of contact with other people, but someplace you feel safe. Release all other thoughts and remove from your person anything that might disturb your connection with nature, like a cell phone. Explain your quest out aloud. Be aware of what is happening around you but merge with your surroundings, be at one with nature and open your heart and mind to revelation from the Creator. Think about your pursuit. Wait for a silence, embrace the stillness, then listen to the voices breathed in the wind, or ascending from the water, or whispered by the trees. Remember, signs aren’t only brought by animals, but sometimes they are in spectacular natural displays.”
It is time to begin. I need to dismiss my thoughts and clear my mind. I sit up straight, cross my legs, place my hands on my knees, relax my arms then look out towards the river. I close my eyes, and see my daughter’s face, the face that haunts me. Images of my visit to the UK during the last weeks of Heather’s life come rushing back. She was so tired of enduring the pain and distress of her short but brutal battle with cancer. I remember the disquiet reflected in her eyes as she gazed at her seven-year-old daughter playing on the floor next to her bed.
“Help her remember me, Mom,” Heather said quietly as tears slid over her prominent cheek bones and down her pale gaunt face. “I have no fight left, and I don’t know how to say goodbye to her.”
Heather lingered until her Dad joined us and we both remained at her bedside, watching her quickly fade away. On Monday afternoon, March Thirteenth, Twenty Seventeen, with her daughter home from school, her husband back from work, and her parents at her bedside, she took her last breath, closed her eyes and left this world.
The palliative care nurse summoned her doctor. After a quick examination, he respectfullyremarked, “She was so brave, and never wanted to trouble anyone.”
I recall the fox that appeared at her house the next day. It circled just outside the front door, then made eye contact with me, looking once more over its shoulder, turned and trotted away. I always believed that was sign from Heather, to let me know she was okay. With this thought I am reminded I have a message for my daughter, so I say quietly but clearly. “Heather, today is the second anniversary of your death. I want you to know we remember you always, we love you and miss you so very much.”
I stifle a sob; let loose tears and they cascade down my cheeks. I sit weeping, weighted by the agony of loss and a heavy despair. I feel I am sinking down to the cold silt bed of a deep dark pool. I disconnect, push up towards the light and surface. I inhale deeply, then just breathe until I am calm. I open my eyes and blink to clear my vision, then concentrate on my pursuit.
‘I should smudge now,’ I tell myself, remembering the Elder’s instruction.
Normally tobacco or sage is burned, the smoke forming a pathway to the spirit world. I don’t have sage or tobacco, but I mix rosemary, lavender and lemon essential oils instead. I drop a pool of the mixture into my left palm then rub my hands vigorously together, generating heat so the oils can evaporate. I hold my hands upwards allowing the aroma to ascend carrying with it my thoughts, feelings and most importantly, my message.
The crow caws, bobs on his perch above me, laughing hoarsely at my smudging variation. I look directly at him with a challenge in my eyes.
“I use what I have,” I mutter.
He ruffles his feathers and snaps his beak in reply.
Turning my attention back to the riverbank, I see an area covered in a light brown hair-like fluff that sparkles with the melting frost. I don’t see any tracks, scat or blood and bones. It looks as though the hair has been there for quite a while, covered in parts by dead leaves. I wonder what it could be.
Then it comes to me, like a breath of wind stirring fallen leaves into motion. This brown cluster, this patch of tattered hair, represents remnants from my past that have been around for a season and need clearing away.
A quiet rustle in the bush, draws my attention back towards the entrance of the clearing. A thrush scuttles into view, sees me, then runs off into the undergrowth.
As the quietness becomes an intense silence, I close my eyes, and focus my thoughts. I see Heather as she was at happier times, her smile reaching her eyes. I hear her voice and melodious laughter.
I recall a conversation I had with Heather one night not long before she died. She told me to look for signs, like a bumble bee, a dragon fly or a hummingbird and I would know she was with me. I feel a gentle gust of wind tugging at my hair. I detect that musky smell of damp fur again, only this time it is heavier. I hear the rustling of leaves and grass, the lapping of the water against the pebbles on the riverbank. Then I hear another sound, faint at first but the definite rhythmic beat of small hooves on the hard ground.
Opening my eyes, I see a blacktailed deer entering the clearing just in front of me. The deer stops sniffing the air, then lowers its head to nibble at green leaves. She lifts her head high on her long graceful neck, sniffs the air again, her muscles are tense and poised. The deer turns to face me, and we make eye contact. She listens, her ears twitching, her black tail flicking from side to side. I am aware of tears filling my eyes as I see a resemblance of my daughter’s features in the deer’s face. “Hello Heather, Katelyn misses you. We all love and miss you so very much,” I murmur.
I hear the wind whisper back as the river sighs washing over the pebbles. “I love you all too. Tell her I love her, mom.”
The deer turns and walks with short, direct steps back into the undergrowth. I am crying, but this time my heart is filled with joy. I know the deer was the sign I asked for confirming my daughter is okay and she has heard my message.
I say a silent prayer of heartfelt gratitude for this blessing. Stiffly, I stand up, walk slowly to the riverbank then pour the rest of the essential oils into the river; a token of appreciation to the Creator for responding to my quest, and thanking Mother Earth for the gifts of protection and guidance.
With my ceremony concluded, I pick up my backpack, take out my water bottle, a granola bar and a handful of mixed nuts. I drink a few sips of cold water, nibble on my granola bar then crunch some nuts. The crow caws above me, I drop the remaining nuts and granola bar at the foot of the tree thanking him for companionship. With a flapping of wings, the crow swoops down for his reward and says goodbye with three hearty caws.
I begin my walk back to the bridge, thinking about my experience this morning, and I feel at peace for the first time in a long while. As the warmth and light of the rising sun begin to replace the cold greyness of the dawn, the memories of my daughter start to emit a charming solace instead of heartache and regret. With the opening of my heart and mind, I appreciate the signs and my medicine walk becomes a healing walk.
I take the feeder path onto the dyke and enjoy the spectacular view of Mount Baker. This morning the snow-covered slopes reflect an energizing pink glow, reminding me of my Himalayan salt lamp. I see farmsteads, with smoke rising from chimneys and lights twinkling from the barns - signs of folks already engaged in chores. Atractor splutters and roars to life, I hear dogs barking and dairy cattle gently lowing as they are milked. Now I hear the honking of geese, growing louder and louder as they approach.
Looking up, I see them in a perfect “V” formation circling above the field ahead. I watch as they descend, and remaining in their formation, they land. The sentries move to the edges of the flock, and the geese dip their heads to graze on the damp grass. Beyond the field of grazing geese, I see Mission Bridge streaked with ribbons of white headlights and red rear lights from the early morning traffic. I quicken my pace.
I reach my car parked in the parking area below the bridge. The sun’s rays are warmer and stronger now and the noise of the traffic drowns out nature’s resonance. I open the trunk of my car, take out my flask and lunch bag and head for a picnic table. I pour a cup of hot milky tea and devour a cheese sandwich.
Satisfied and fulfilled, but not quite ready to head home, I retrieve my journal and a pen from my backpack to record the incredible events of my morning.
An hour later, my flask and lunch bag are empty, but the pages of my journal are filled with the details of this morning’s healing steps. It is time to head home. I drive in silence, and the words of the hymn - Oh Lord, My God - flows through my mind. I sing the second verse -
“When thru’ the woods and forest glades I wander,