It’s not dark yet

It was a year of new experiences and long-sought-for goals and also a year in which mortality sent me regular reminders.

This was the year when finally, after half a dozen nominations and shortlist appearances for earlier writings, I won a literary award (the Margaret Laurence Prize for Fiction, from the Manitoba Book Awards, for my novel Prodigies). Since I’ve just finished an edit of the first draft of a sequel to Prodigies, I’m hoping that that award opens the door for the book I’m currently calling Prodigies: The Ghost of Cheyenne. This was also the year when I finally had a short story published in my hometown literary journal, Prairie Fire (The Symbolic Cemetery, inspired by a backpacking trip in a haunted Central European mountain range, published in the magazine’s spring edition).

The new or long-sought-for experiences weren’t only literary. For decades, I had wanted to climb a high mountain, something in the Himalayas or Andes that’s high enough to make breathing difficult. A few years ago, my wife Rosemary and I made it to glacier level (5,000 metres) on Cotopaxi, in Ecuador. On that occasion we took a bus to the 4,700-metre level, so while the air was thin enough we didn’t struggle against it for long. In February of 2022, though, I climbed with my son to the summit of 5,636-metre Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico and third-highest in North America. While technically simple (just a long, steep slog up loose rock, followed by a longer steep slog on snow and ice), the climb would have been impossible for me without the encouragement of my son Sam, a skilled sport climber and professional rope technician.

There were plenty of other new experiences. In June, I officiated at a wedding, which is something I’d never imagined doing. After winning a stand-up paddle board in a fund-raising lottery, I added SUP to my list of outdoor sports that I enjoy without being especially adept at. On road trips with our lightweight solar-powered travel trailer, Rosemary and I hiked in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and White Sands National Parks and explored Dodge City, Palo Duro Canyon, Santa Fe, Taos and Lincoln County, New Mexico, potential locations for future books with wild west settings. These trips included our first-ever rattlesnake close encounter and a rite of passage for modern nomads: sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot. For our thirtieth anniversary, Rosemary and I went to New York and, among other things, took in a Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden and wandered around Brooklyn, both new settings for me. When a contract I was counting on this year was bumped to 2023, I applied for a part-time job as Christmas extra help at Manitoba Liquor Marts and until New Year’s Eve I’ll be working my first-ever job in retail.

And amid all this, I kept getting reminded that, though it’s not dark yet, as Bob Dylan sang, it’s getting there.

In March, I reached two years cancer-free following my surgery in 2020. But two months later, my doctor told me it was time to start taking daily medication to reduce my cholesterol. I’d always thought that you’re officially old when you have to start taking daily meds, so this was the year I passed that milestone. In May, after we returned from a trailer trip, I found myself hobbling about with sciatic nerve pain, a result of sitting too long on long driving days. Another marker of advanced age.

Physiotherapy and various stretching and strengthening exercises got the pain under control but once was I was able to run again my limit was seven or eight kilometres, instead of the earlier eight to ten. In September, ankle pain led to another set of physiotherapy visits and exercises. After that, I cut my running back to four or five kilometres at a time.

My body was feeling a little better, albeit heavier as a result of the reduced activity, when a routine eye appointment brought me more news of the passage of time: glaucoma. I’m now taking daily eyedrops to slow the expected gradual loss of vision and I’m hopeful that the condition was caught early enough that I have decades of vision still ahead. But again, if it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there.

I was still digesting this premonition of mortality when a social media exchange led to something that will be a Big New Thing for me in 2023. I’ve been doing comedy at open mic events since just before my surgery in February 2020 and several of my sets have focused on my experience with cancer and the long-term effects of my surgery.

In 2023, I’ll bring all that material together – some of which made its way into a personal essay published in 2022 in The Fiddlehead – at a health care conference in Winnipeg. It will be my first paid comedy gig. It’s another thing I’ve always dream of, and it would not have been possible without the hints of mortality I’ve been receiving in the last few years.