I never expected to receive a Christmas gift this year but I did. In fact, I got two gifts and both came as a complete surprise. They were the first gifts that I’ve received at Christmas, in a very long time and at first, I hesitated about opening them. But I’ll get back to the gifts of love in a moment because I need to tell you, dear reader, another story from my childhood.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had mixed feelings about receiving gifts but I’m not sure why. It’s not that I’m fussy or difficult to please – I’m not. It’s just that I feel awkward and unworthy – but I can’t explain it better than that. But I love giving gifts – so I’ll never be accused of being a Scrooge.
As one, of six children, we always had a gift to open on our birthday or at Christmas but they were seldom toys or other neat things that you’d see advertised on TV. One Christmas, we got an oversized toboggan – but who wants to share that with two older sisters? But we always had a great Christmas feast and always lots of company to share the excitement. And my Ma would always bake a birthday cake on our birthdays – so I’m not complaining or ungrateful.
But there was always a little part of me that was jealous of my friends at school when they described all of the stuff they got. The gift I got most often, was something that my Ma knitted for me – such as a pair of mitts, a toque (knitted cap) or socks. My Grandma Puffer used to also knit things for my sisters, brothers and me. It wasn’t until later years that I realized how much time and love were spent by Ma and Grandma knitting things for us. And Ma used to make my sister’s blouses, dresses, and skirts. She was very talented and I always received compliments when wearing a sweater that Ma had knitted me. I still have the sweaters and I treasure them, although they no longer fit.
A few weeks before Christmas, one of the walking groups that I belong to was having a party and everyone brought a gift. I didn’t stay at the party once the meal was served, so I wasn’t there when the gifts were distributed. Everyone brought something inexpensive that would be suitable for either a man or woman. A week or so later, one of my walking buddies mentioned that he had saved my gift from the party and it was in his car. He gave it to me last week, after Christmas but I never opened it until yesterday. It was a generous gift certificate. Again I felt a pang of guilt for receiving a gift.
The other gift that I received was really unexpected – and it too warms my heart just thinking about it.
My friend Sannie had started a new job in Vancouver, so our get-togethers were becoming less frequent. But she is like a daughter to me and I was hoping we could see each other before the holidays. We made arrangements to meet for lunch on the 23rd. I had gathered a bunch of goodies from Trader Joe’s for her as an unwrapped Christmas gift because I didn’t want her to feel bad for not getting me anything. But she told me that she had a gift from me, so after we had lunch and got back in the car, we exchanged our Christmas card and gift.
Sannie’s gift to me was neatly wrapped with two ribbons on each end of the gift. I read the card – and then with my hands trembling with the excitement of a ten-year-old, I opened the present. It was an awesome toque that she had knitted for me! And although I never asked her – I imagined that she probably thought about me, as she knitted it. I held back the tears until we had said our goodbyes and had started the drive home. Her boyfriend Kuba, is a very lucky boy!
This was the best Christmas I’ve had in many years!
It was the morning of Christmas Eve and once again it didn’t feel like Christmas.
It had been years since I last celebrated Christmas – but I remember it well. It was in 1983 at my Mom & Dad’s place in Midland, Ontario. My family always got together to celebrate Christmas at my parent’s place – but I had missed the last couple of Christmases because I was living in Vancouver. My Dad came to the Toronto airport to pick me up – I had yet to see their new home in Midland – but I was more excited about seeing my Mom and brothers and sisters and my niece and nephew. That’s what Christmas was all about to the St. Andrews family – being together and enjoying our own special traditions. Some of those traditions included arriving on Christmas Eve and spending the night – so we could all get up together – just like when we were all growing up at our home in Oshawa and then later in Georgetown.
At my parents home in Georgetown, my Dad had built a wonderful bar in the rec room and he would wear a Christmas hat while he served drinks from his perch on a stool – behind the bar – which he considered “sacred” ground. You NEVER went behind the bar when Dad was on duty – the words “self-serve” did not exist in his bar. So as we arrived on Christmas Eve, the first thing you heard when you entered their house was the laughter and shouting from downstairs. A few hugs and kisses with Mom and then you would head downstairs to reunite with the clan.
Early on Christmas morning – probably no later than 6:00 AM, my Dad would be the first one to awake and ready to act as Santa. We would all gather around the Christmas Tree in the family room and my Dad would give each person one gift to open – beginning with my Mom. Everyone would watch quietly as each person opened their gift – and then there would be loud outbursts of “ooh’s and ahh’s”. My brothers, sisters and I would then prepare a large breakfast for everyone – and let Mom have the day off from the kitchen. Immediately after breakfast we would all gather at the Christmas Tree and continue to open all the gifts.
About mid-morning, Dad would announce that the bar was open. Later, Mom would bring a platter of Scotch Eggs for us to snack on. And then about mid-afternoon, we would all gather in the dining room for a sumptuous turkey dinner. Later, my brother-in-law Brian – a professional photographer, would get everyone together for a family portrait – which we would all receive framed copies. Then some of us would start to leave to go to our respective homes – which always made my Mom cry. She was happiest when she had every one of us together – as a family – and always pleaded with us – “Do you have to go so soon?”
So, on this morning of Christmas Eve, I was having a coffee and looking at one of those family portraits – and I got homesick. Homesick because I missed my Mom and Dad – and family – and those magical Christmases we shared together. And I missed not having that special feeling that I used to get every year – at Christmas. Two years ago, I went to Costco and bought a ton of outdoor Christmas lights – and decorated all of the hedges, evergreens, and fence – I had just finished my cancer treatments and didn’t know how many more Christmases I would be around for – and desperately hoping that the lights would bring back that special Christmas feeling. But it didn’t.
Last week I wrote a blog about buying a complete Santa Claus outfit – so I could visit all of the patients at the Fraser Valley Cancer Centre – where I was treated – and where I have been volunteering every week for the past 16 months. And as I made my way through the various clinics – almost all of the patients’ eyes would light up with excitement. I was hearing voices from all sides – things like: “Hi Santa!” and “Merry Christmas Santa” and “Hey Santa, can we get a picture of you with us?” Within five minutes that special feeling returned – and I was a kid again. I didn’t rush home and decorate the house with lights though; in fact, within hours of leaving the Cancer Centre, I lost the feeling – which made me really sad.
So on the morning of Christmas Eve, I decided to get dressed as Santa Claus, again – and go to the Cancer Centre and to Surrey Memorial Hospital. As soon as I walked into the hospital lobby a woman ran up to me, pleading, “Oh Santa, could I get a picture with you and my Mom?” I said “Sure – Ho, Ho Ho!” The mother slowly walked up to me – she was in her patient gown and was wearing a Christmas hat. I gave her a hug and was posing with her for the picture – when her daughter suddenly said: “Mom, why are you crying?” Before the mother could answer, I squeezed her closer to me and asked her why she was crying. She stared up at me and with tears rolling down her cheek, she cried, “Because I never thought I would ever meet Santa Claus!” I kissed her on the cheek and whispered into her ear “I will always be with you”.
I toured the Cancer Centre and then walked down the hall to the adjoining Surrey Memorial Hospital and took the elevator up to 51 North – the Oncology Floor. I had been a patient there several times during my cancer treatments – when I was at my lowest point. I walked into each of the patients’ room and wished them all a Happy Holiday. On my way back to the elevator, I noticed a Palliative Care sign over the entrance to another wing of the floor. “This is where the very sick and/or terminally ill patients are”, I thought to myself. I walked into the ward and all of the medical staff were surprised to see Santa. After posing for several photos I asked if it would be okay to say hello to the patients. They replied in unison “Of course you can – you’re Santa Claus!”
I made my way around the ward; entering each of the rooms and then holding the hand of each of the patients. I didn’t know what to say but what suddenly burst out of my mouth was “I know that you’ve always believed in me, and I just wanted to drop by to say hello”. One patient – an older man – was wearing a Christmas hat and said that he had awoken that morning excited with the hope that maybe a friend or family member might drop by for a visit. But none had – until Santa Claus. He held my hand for the longest time and just stared at me and then muttered: “Thank you Santa – Merry Christmas”. I turned to leave his room – my eyes were filling with tears and I didn’t want him to see me cry. After all, he believed in Santa Claus.
And now so do I.
Santa Danny in the Chemo Room, December 24, 2012
Today’s Tune (from Danny’s library of purchased music):
It must have caused quite a commotion when he arrived in this world. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of it before (or since) – being born with different colored eyes. But it’s true – although I never saw them myself – his wife told me about them. She also told me that he was just a teenager when he left school to join the army – the Ontario Regiment to be exact. She said that his mother didn’t even kiss him goodbye when he left for Europe to fight in the Second World War. It was a long journey – boarding a train in Oshawa for Halifax – and then by ship to England. But he had his guitar with him, and his buddies from the neighborhood, so he probably wasn’t lonely. His wife also told me – with a look of pride – that he played his guitar on the BBC Radio, although it didn’t make him famous. After a few months, his regiment was shipped to Sicily, Italy.
She told me that he was badly wounded – shrapnel from a bomb or grenade had struck him in the eye. She said that the medics placed sandbags around his head to keep him still while they removed the metal from his left eye – the operation took place on the battlefield. But they couldn’t save his eye – there was nothing left of it. He returned home to Oshawa – but the war for him was not over. There would be many sleepless nights – reliving the horrors of war. He wore an eye patch for quite some time – until he was fitted with a “glass eye”. Nobody could tease him about his different colored eyes anymore.
His wife told me that they had met each other after the war – and it was love at first sight. She said they married and then went to Montreal for their honeymoon. They started a family – their first child was a girl – and they named her Linda Mae. Their second daughter was born a year later – they named her Leslie Heather. A year later, they had their first boy and named him Daniel James. Nobody ever called me Daniel though – it was always just Danny. My brother Frederick (Freddy) was born a year later and then several years later, the stork brought Eric (Ricky) and then returned a year later to bring Randall (Randy).
I remember asking Dad about his experiences in the war but he would always remain silent. In fact, he never talked about the war until I was an adult but even then, he would only talk about it in general terms – never the gory details. My Mom explained that most of the soldiers that had seen action would never talk about their experiences. I remember my cousin Jim Little from Calgary once telling me that he was a young boy when my Dad had returned home from the war. Jim and his parents were living in my Grandparent’s home on Ritson Road, and he remembers that whenever there was a bad storm – with thunder, my Dad would be in the closet – taking cover. My Mom told me that for years my Dad would wake up at night, screaming.
My Dad was sick for the last year of his life. My Mom called me after he had been taken by ambulance to the Oshawa Hospital. I made arrangements to fly to Toronto the next day and took a taxi from the airport directly to the hospital. My family was all gathered in his room – he was laying on the bed – his eyes were closed. I asked my Mom if he was sleeping, but she sadly shook her head and told me that he wasn’t conscious.
I went out into the hall and spoke to the Head Nurse – “Is my Dad going to regain consciousness? Is he going to be okay?” She told me that my Dad could probably still hear – but he wouldn’t be able to respond. I remember walking back into the room and over to his bed. I stroked his head and told him that I loved him. I had never ever told him that before. And my Dad had never ever told me that he loved me either.
I had just sat down beside my Ma, when suddenly, my Dad sat upright and looked directly at me and pointed and tried to say something but it all came out garbled. It lasted only a few seconds – and then, just as suddenly, he laid back down. I ran over to him and stroked his forehead, trying to reassure him that everything was going to be okay.
My Mom suggested that we leave for the evening. My brother Randy would be staying in the room with Dad and then I would return to the hospital in the morning. We said goodnight to Dad and as we were leaving I glanced at the framed picture of my Dad in his army uniform – taken just before he left for the war in Europe. My Mom had brought the picture to Dad’s room because it was Remembrance Day – November 11th.
On our drive back to their apartment, I told Mom that I had never told Dad that I loved him before and I hoped that he was able to hear me. But I knew that he loved me – because my Mom told me so. He was brought up in a family that didn’t show their emotions – so it just wasn’t in his nature. We had just walked into their place and the telephone rang. I answered the phone, it was Randy – he said that Dad had just passed away.
Yes, he passed away on Remembrance Day, November 11, 2001 – – how befitting for a veteran.
And my Mom, who was just a bit superstitious, would often comment on how strange it was that when she moved sometime later into a condo in Ajax, that it happened to be #1101 (eleven-o-one) and that Dad had died on 11/01.
And on September 26, 2010, Mom was reunited with Dad.
Rest in Peace, Dad.
Rest in Peace, Ma.
All My Love Forever and Ever,
Today’s Tune: The Band Played Waltzing Matilda ~ The Dubliners
Readers of this blog will remember my original Moonshine in the Maritimes posting from November 8, 2016 – a blog that was both painful to write and impossible for me to complete a final chapter.
But all of that changed this morning, and now my heart is racing, and my legs are shaking, and I can’t believe how excited I am! And now, the final chapter is pulsing through my body – from my brain to my heart – and from my heart to my brain. There’s so much that I want to say…
It’s currently Thursday, March 2, 2017, and I am leaving to go to the Promenade in White Rock to do my walk. Walking helps me think, and I need to put all of these highly-charged emotions into words, sentences, and paragraphs. And it has to be believable because frankly, it is – but I’ll leave it to you – and your judgment to decide for yourself.
But don’t ask me to re-publish the original blog – I deleted it one night when I was deep in a depressed state – missing my cousin Ruthie and feeling sorry for myself. Isn’t that why we cry? We’re hurt and feeling sorry for ourselves – wondering how our lives will ever be the same without our loved one.
So, my story will resume on the morning of November 12, 2016, just before we said goodbye to my cousin Ruthie and witnessed her passing while holding her in our arms. That moment changed my life forever, but it left me with more questions than answers. But now I know for sure, that Ruthie is still with me – just like my Ma and Grandma Puffer are – and now I have proof!
Stay tuned kiddies, fasten your seatbelts and stand behind the sneeze guard – the ride is about to enter the dark tunnel, and you’re trying frantically to get out before the ghouls and goblins appear from the shadows.
The Last Chapter
Sunday, November 6, 2016
The trip to Moncton to visit my cousin Ruth had been planned for early Summer 2016 but I had a few medical issues that I was dealing with, so it wasn’t until that Sunday, that I booked my flight to Moncton.
Ruth, or Ruthie as her friends and family called her, is my first cousin on my Mom’s (Puffer) side. Her Mom and mine were sisters. We were never very close because Ruthie was ten years older than me, but we always seemed to have a connection. My earliest memory of her was when she came to stay with us for a weekend visit; I was probably seven or eight years old at the time. And she was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen in my life. At the time, I was hopelessly in love with Annette Funicello the Mouseketeer, on the Mickey Mouse Club Show on TV.
Annette Funicello – Mouseketeer
Annette Funicello 1942 – 2013
But Ruthie became her replacement, and I was now hopelessly in love, with a much older girl – who probably hardly knew I existed. And that’s how little Danny first fell in love and began to dream and believe in the impossible. Because sometimes, impossible dreams do come true!
Later in life, I would sometimes see Ruthie at weddings or funerals, but I never spoke to her as an adult until we saw each other one night, at her brother Terry’s house in Bramalea, Ontario in the 70’s. It was a family get-together, and I was there with my parents and was in my twenties, and Ruthie and her husband Mike were standing in the kitchen with a crowd of people, laughing and enjoying themselves. I told her that I had had a life-long crush on her – and still did. She giggled and then hugged me and gave me a kiss on the lips. I have never forgotten that moment – and how excited she made me feel. I also remember telling Mike, her husband, how lucky he was to have her as his wife. I never saw either of them again until I saw Ruthie at my Dad’s funeral in 2001. She and her sister Patty and Patty’s husband came to the funeral together – and we sat and talked for quite a while about our lives and loves. Once again, I told Ruthie that I still had my boyhood crush on her!
A few years later, on the week that my youngest brother Randy was getting married, my cousin Patty’s husband passed away. And although I had only met him once – at my Dad’s funeral – he was a Newfie, and my family and I liked him. So on the day after Randy’s wedding, I went to the funeral home in MisterandMissesAuga to pay my respects. Most of the Walkers were there, but as I scanned the room, I couldn’t find my Ruthie. I was standing at the coffin with Patti, and she gave me a white rose, which she explained meant ‘goodbye.’ It’s why I dislike white roses – because some goodbyes are forever and are often accompanied by a broken heart. It’s also why I’ve always been frugal in saying goodbye – to loved ones. But as I turned to walk away from the casket, I saw her!
My heart started thumping as I quickly made my way across the room to where my Ruthie was standing. She had been talking with a couple of her lady friends and gave a shriek when she saw me. And then she introduced me to her friends.
Ruthie:This is my cousin Danny. He used to wack off while fantasizing about me.
My face turned a scarlet red, and I became tongue-tied. What could I possibly say in reply to that embarrassing introduction? But without missing a beat, I shrugged my shoulders, turned to walk away and waved, saying…
Me:And I still do!
And then I quickly ran outside to my car and drove back to my hotel in Toronto. We never hugged or kissed, and it was another secret that I had planned to take to my grave. But instead, I’m sharing it with you because I know that you can keep a secret. Promise!?
I was on a plane home to Vancouver the next morning, still shuddering with embarrassment at Ruthie’s introduction. But it made me smile and chuckle all the way home. And it’s making me grin again this morning, as I write about it. I mean, how did she ever find out about my secret fantasy?
Several years later, in June ’07 or ’08, I learned that my Ruthie was now living in Moncton. I gave her a call and told her that I was planning a trip to visit my buddies Bill, Scotty and General and asked if she would like to get together. A few weeks later I was staying at Junior’s place in Moncton. I had set his father up in business years ago and then hired his son, Allan, as one of my District Managers for Western Canada. HIs nickname was Junior, and he was now married and living in Moncton and had invited me to spend a few days with him and his wife, Jennifer.
While there, Ruthie and I got together and went out-on-the-town and partied until the early morning hours. She came out to the couch where I was sleeping at about 5:00 am and suggested that I should probably leave before her daughter’s family wake up (they lived in the upper part of the duplex). I was supposed to come back later to meet her daughter, but I time didn’t allow, and I returned to Vancouver, the next day.
But that night that we spent out-on-the-town, was like a first date and I learned so much about Ruthie… and our family’s history. We never spoke again until after my Mom’s funeral in September 2010, a year after my cancer treatments had ended. And it was at my Ma’s funeral that my family learned that I had cancer. I hadn’t told anyone about my cancer because I was afraid that they’d tell my Mom. And my Ma’s health was too fragile to withstand the news. View Danny’s Cancer, Story
After Mom’s funeral, I returned to Vancouver and called Ruthie in Moncton. News of my throat cancer had already reached her from the family grapevine but she still seemed surprised when I told her. It had been less than a year, since my last treatment and I wasn’t sure about my future. I was still clinging to the belief that I was in the “40% Group” that survives my type of cancer – but I was also a realist, and needed to have some basis in fact, to continue believing that I would survive. And Ruthie was just the medicine I needed!
Ruthie had battled three different cancers over a 42 year period – and survived! In fact, while I was going through my treatments in 2009, Ruthie had a part of her lung removed (lung cancer). Years earlier, she had both breasts removed. She was such a positive voice – and her words of encouragement were just what I needed to help me in my own battle.