(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, July 19, 2014)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ It was in the whirlpool at the Les Chater Y when I was congratulated for My Bride’s recent naming into the Order of Canada. The woman, another early-morning swimmer, had read the news in this publication.
“Let’s face it,” she said. “You’ve had a role to play in this all. Any woman who wins something like this has to be married to a certain sort of man. If Madame Curie hadn’t been married to Pierre, she’d have been forced to be home barefoot, baking bread.”
I wanted to bow, but the water, you know?
And while Pierre may have had a supporting role in Marie Curie’s contribution to civilization – winner of the Nobel Prize in science, twice – if his experience was anything like mine, he didn’t have much choice in matters, anyway.
Yes, even before the Governor General’s office called our Hamilton home – I answered – to recognize Jean for her tireless battle against the dragon of maternal and child death in East Africa, plenty of honour and attention and lights and clunky cameras had been in our living room with regularity.
I once felt like sliding, just gently, into the picture to say, “Hey, I have a story too, raised in the deep forest by white wolves before the military came in on orders from some pretty big people to give me a new life using my unique skills in international operations.”
But that’s classified. And those producers always do seem more interested in my wife than me.
Jean, by the way, knew in grade-school she’d someday be a doctor to the poor overseas. I, on the other hand, got into our back-and-forth overseas life – first living in Yemen and, since 2005, Uganda – more like Bilbo Baggins.
Yes, Bilbo, content in his little Hobbit home, gets wrestled into things only after those party guests show up one at a time, uninvited, to eat his favourite food and play his best utensils and make vulgar noises like they own the place.
“You’ve been sitting quietly far too long,” old Gandalf finally says. “Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?”
Bilbo pleads, “I can’t just go running off into the blue! I’m a Baggins of Bag End!”
But somehow his heart is captured. And when the hobbit then runs down the path singing and yelling about the unknown adventure in front of him – the dragon awaits – we’re reminded we too have our own adventures to find. And even if we sort of just fall into them, that’s fine too.
Which is all to say that it’s unfortunate that this form of decision-making isn’t encouraged more these days. Instead, we’re told to draw up that five-year-plan. Make it 10. Be as rigid and unimaginative, I mean as clear and specific, as possible. “Ha ha, no, Mr. Froese, dragons certainly don’t exist, so no use considering that direction. And, if they do, well, better to be safe.”
God knows better. No, really. Do you know what makes God laugh? People making plans. This, an old Yiddish joke. And, for the blessed, a lesson in how to live. A new way. The way.
During these back-and-forth years to the developing world – I call it getting two lives for the price of one – this is the truism I’ve found: that it’s good not to over-script our lives, fragile and brief and beautiful as they are, but rather to open them to possible currents outside our own devices, knowing a surprise or two will surely come along.
Like this sort of honour in the family.
Like other recipients, my wife stands on the shoulders of others. She easily acknowledges this: her Save the Mothers team, generous donors, her McMaster and St. Joseph’s hospitals colleagues, her parents.
Jean’s mom notes when they brought newborn Jean home, they never imagined any future Order of Canada, just the rats at their Shedden farmhouse getting her. I wonder if Rick Mercer or any other Summer of ’14 Order recipients ever had such challenges.
In either case, they’re all worthy and can bow to be congratulated again.
As for me, I’ll just keep on swimming.