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Monday, July 20, 2015

An Irish Wake on the Farm

Well, that was a first for this farm. We have hosted a wedding, holiday dinners, birthday celebrations and farm parties in the moonlight. But this is the first time we have ever hosted an Irish Wake.
Sunday morning dawned bright and humid, with a severe thunderstorm watch. By afternoon, Kemptville had its first ever thunderstorm warning. Perfect. We started to think maybe Uncle Pat was trying to go out with a crash and a bang. Luckily, the storm passed north of us and we just got the tailwinds. It didn’t rain on us, and we managed to escape with one toppled tent, one ripped tarp and some overturned lawn chairs. We got the mess cleaned up before everyone arrived at 3pm, and made sure the remaining infrastructure was securely fastened to the ground.
Pat’s sister (my mom) and his girlfriend Christiane had been working on this Celebration of Life for weeks. I panicked a little bit when the guest list swelled to 50, then 60 people who would like to stay after the service for a sit-down meal. We had never fed quite so many before.  We decided to dedicate the kitchen-dining area to the main buffet, turn the back TV room into dessert land and put all the appetizers with the drinks out on the back porch and tables set out on the lawn under the tent. I stood in the middle of the house and imagined the flow of a possible 70 people through the house. In the end, only about 40 showed up out of fear of the storm so it was quite comfortable.
As fitting for a man who has lived in Ontario, B.C. and Asia, teaching little theatre and English as a Second Language, working as a radiologist, cab driver, professional actor and performer, Uncle Pat’s guest list was quite a motley crew. There were relatives from long ago and far away, some who hadn’t seen each other in three decades. We worried past history might cause some drama between a few people, to which Mom responded, “It isn’t a good Irish Wake without a donnybrook or two.” Grandma was present of course, along with Pat’s sweethearts past and present, a new Canadian from Mexico who was one of his ESL students and even a psychic medium.  Three of his co-stars from a recent Ottawa theatre production managed to get here through what sounded like a remake of “Trains, Planes and Automobiles”.
A long-time family friend, Janet Stark, performed the services for us. We made her a little platform and affixed a gazebo on top of it. Pat’s widow Christiane decorated with Irish mementos, Pat’s favourite sunflowers and a string of Tibetan prayer flags. The Irish Catholic / Buddhist service was like none I had ever attended before, and I’m sure none I will ever attend again. We served punch, water and soft drinks before the service, and I only had to take one beer out of someone’s hand, reminding them we had to go to church first, Irish Wake second.
Pat’s brother got up with his guitar and started to sing Amazing Grace. But when the wind whipped up again, knocking the deceased’s photo to the ground and whisking the sheet music off into the pasture, he switched to something else. “These Hands” by Hank Snow was the perfect choice.
After prayer, readings and shared memories, we passed around the Irish whiskey, had a few toasts and sang a few Irish songs.
The wind ripped brother Jack’s music from the stand and caused his guitar to hit and cut his forehead. A gale thrashed at the tents, carried song, tore the strips off the bottom of the Tibetan banner and carried them skyward. It was a dramatic display. A grand finale of a life. Pat’s photo kept repeatedly falling over and having to be replaced above his urn on the stage. And then suddenly, at the end of the service, calm. A vacuum of energy, like a powerful presence had just left the room with a great door slam.
At the end of the service, the medium came up to speak quietly with some of us. She said Pat had indeed been there. She felt he went and kissed his mother on the cheek. Later my mother told the psychic Pat hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to his 100-year-old mother. They had been extremely close in recent years, living in the same building.
Pat even performed a little miracle on his way out. His two remaining brothers, who hadn’t seen each other in 30 years after parting on bad terms, grabbed a guitar and a mic and sang a number of Irish tunes with their sister, my mother.
Rest in Peace, Uncle Pat, with the certainty of a life well lived and always remembered. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Part Two: Vitor's last hurrah

Well, we almost made it through the week without any disasters. I was amazed how quiet and well-behaved my daughter’s city dog German Shepherd – Rottweiler could be, on his farm stay-cation. He went into his crate without a fuss, because although I find it odd, it is a completely normal part of life for him. It’s his safe place. His haven.
We started out the week with a brisk 45-minute walk in the morning but after he had done that once, he didn’t want to again. Like me, he doesn’t really see the point of walking just for walking! Vitor prefers to get his exercise playing fetch. He’s really good at it. Except he tends to break hard plastic Frisbees and eat the pieces. I found him an indestructible rubber toy to fetch.
During the evenings when the Farmer and I settled in front of Netflix with our geriatric Gordon Setter Cody, Vitor came along and settled in too. Sort of. Mostly he flopped around and chewed on a very loud squeaking sheep toy. This alternated with stealth attacks on our poor 16-year-old dog, who was a bundle of nerves by the end of the week. If Vitor got too rowdy we would put him outside, where he would sit on the porch and watch us through the window until it got dark or he started whimpering to come in, whichever came first.
When we weren’t home, we put him in the crate. When one of us was home but too busy to watch the dog, we put him on a lead outside, and he lay under the cool skirts of the cedar tree, counting the cows as they lined up at the fence to investigate him.
If we were both home and present, I let Vitor run free. He checked out the raccoon traps (empty), pushed his nose as far down the groundhog hole as it would go (and emerged unbitten), chased the farm cats into hiding, and visited Cody regularly (mostly to see if he had any kibble left in his bowl).
He even tried to visit Chelsea the Border Collie but she threatened to bite his nose off. She doesn’t like being approached when she is tied; she feels trapped. Later she remedied the situation by escaping from her lead. When they were both free, they got along just fine.
Friday night, Vitor’s last night on the farm, I let him out one more time before bed. Granted, it was a bit later than usual. I settled in on the couch with my book and waited for him to reappear at the screen door.
Five minutes later I hear barking. I slid the door open, stepped out on the porch and was hollering for Vitor when the stench of skunk slapped me in the face. Vitor appeared then, and marched into the house, triumphant.
“Did you get that funny-looking cat, Vitor?” I asked him. He did a lot of lip-licking and snout-snuffling, and settled in for the night. A faint smell of skunk spray had followed him into the house, so I had to wash him the next morning before returning him to his tidy townhouse in the suburbs. I also packed a dry shampoo in his bag in case the smell re-emerged from his damp coat and he began to offend his caregivers.
The last thing Vitor did before leaving the farm: he ripped his squeaky sheep toy apart. I’m not sure why he slept with it and carried it around all week, only to destroy it in the end.
I helped the dog to hop up into the cargo section of my Explorer. This was to his liking until we got going down the road. At first I thought he was yelping and whining because he wanted the windows open instead of the air conditioning. Then I realized what he really wanted was to be in the back seat. Every five minutes he gave an air-splitting yelp, nearly prompting a heart attack and swerve in his chauffeur. I learned to watch him in the rear-view mirror so I could tell when another yelp was coming.

Vitor seemed happy to be home in his Barrhaven townhouse. He pinned the cat by the neck and gave him a good love bite. I wonder if he will miss the excitement and activity on the farm. Something tells me I’m going to miss him. 

Vitor of Barrhaven: city dog on the farm

This waking up at 4am is for the birds. Literally. The little squawkers are so excited about the rising sun; they just can’t keep their delight to themselves. They sit in the tree positioned directly outside my bedroom window and sing their song of love to the warm rays of the glowing orb, waking me from a deep sleep. A sleep that I have zero hope of returning to, now that the sun is up.
I try, for three more respectable hours, to get some sleep. I shut the window, pull the window shade down, fluff my pillows and squeeze my eyes shut. Then I hear the dog. He figures, if the birds are up, the people should be up, and that means he might be getting fed soon. He too, sleeps under our bedroom window, where we can hear every move he makes. His low harrumph wakes up the sheepdog, who starts yipping and yapping at the cows, just emerging from their night in the barn.
The cows call to their calves with a low moo that becomes increasingly agitated; a bellowing foghorn in the morning dew. Good thing I’m a morning person. I throw the covers back and get ready to start the day.
On my way down the stairs, my eye is drawn to the window where I am pretty sure I see a skunk making its way across the porch. Not paying attention to my step, I trod on and then trip over a cat. Adrenalin rush is better than caffeine. I’m awake now.
I put the coffee on, boil some water for my hot lemon, and feed the dog.
We have a houseguest this week: Vitor of Barrhaven is here while his human is away on holiday. My city daughter’s city dog watches me silently from his crate. I almost forgot he was there. I have learned to clip the leash on him as soon as I open the door. He’s very jumpy first thing in the morning and he also loves to chase cats.
We step out onto the porch and I take a quick look around for the skunk before feeding the cats. Six of them peer at us from under lawn furniture, scowling and horrified as if to ask, “what fresh hell is this?!”
Vitor’s owner works from home so I’m told he gets about three walks a day. He’s a lean, muscled Rottweiler / Shepherd mix, about 2 years old I think, and he needs plenty of exercise. We start each day with a good 45-minute walk and then I tie him up outside for a couple hours while I work around the house. Sometimes I let him run free around the property but he doesn’t know what the rules are so he keeps coming back to the porch and whining at the door. Either that or he chases cats, rolls in the spot where he found something dead or wanders over to eat whatever Cody has left in his bowl. I feed and water him and watch as he tips his food bowl over and picks the kibble out of the grass. It’s his morning ritual.
Chelsea broke off her chain last night and came to the fence to investigate this new smell/animal. The first meeting did not go well. I put Vitor in his crate in the house while the Farmer went to fix Chelsea’s lead. The little sheepdog, aka Houdini, found a gap in the fence and wriggled through it. She crept up onto the back porch and sniffed through the screen door at Vitor.
Vitor was named after a UFC fighter. He has a lot to live up to. He held his own in a swim meet with my other daughter’s four hunting dogs: she threw the rubber bird into the creek and they splashed in, racing for it and Vitor got it first, nine times out of ten. He quickly learned the hierarchy of dogs in that little clan, as Beretta the boss emerged onto the shore first to demand the duck be dropped at her feet. He only challenged her once. It was pretty neat to watch. Soon she had her own personal duck-fetcher.
My daughter might have a challenge on her hands when she returns from holiday. Vitor may not be content with a simple romp in the park anymore. He is ready for doggy Olympics. He has been training on the farm.