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Monday, January 10, 2011

"Skating away on the thin ice of a new day" *

Canadian winters are particularly difficult for the disabled unless you live on the balmy southern west coast of this country, but even they have had their fair share of cold and snow this year, effectively paralyzing unprepared cities like Vancouver. Ours here in eastern Canada has been mercifully mild and dry so far, but then it is only early January and in a country where winter weather can occasionally strike as late as May, it is too much to hope that this might actually be the trend this year. If there is anything I've learned about Canadian winters it's that there are very few trends beyond cold and bloody cold with usually buckets, but sometimes truckloads, of snow thrown in.

But we in this household, at least those not responsible for the removal of snow and winterizing the family shelter (which is everyone but me), used to eagerly anticipate the season's harsh blasts. Winter means skiing on local hills, skating on Ottawa's lengthy canal, and, above all, hockey and a backyard rink.

Our first backyard rink was lovingly crafted by Michael back in 1984 when our eldest child was only three. We had bought her those little skates that one attaches to the boots of small children. They have two "blades" but really are just pretend skates to fool children into venturing out onto that slippery stuff they can't stand up on. One can never learn to skate in those things, just stand up, if you're lucky. But our little Anna tottered out onto her very own rink, a mere 4'x6' little space on which she'd have been hard pressed , even if she could skate, to gain any speed and momentum before tumbling headlong into the surrounding snow. I can accurately report she did NOT learn to skate that year.

For the next few years, while we lived in the heart of the city, Michael gave up on future rinks in our too-small backyard and instead we made many forays to the famous Rideau Canal in Ottawa, an eight kilometre long skating rink cutting right through the centre of the city. I remember many a romantic late-night skate with my new husband back before children, and even after the offspring began to arrive, we still made time to go with the kids, or even without on the occasional lucky night out (It's one activity we both felt our children should learn given how much pleasure it gave both of us). Often there was a baby bundled into a stroller but our first child seemed born to skate, just like her dad. No stroller for her. By age four she could skate the entire length of that canal like a pro and even conned her uncle into sponsoring her in a fundraising skate-a-thon one year. He foolishly pledged an enormous amount per lap thinking there was no possible way this child could skate THAT far, and he ended up forking out a rather large sum of money to a very smug little girl.

Our next rink didn't materialize until after we had moved into our current home that sits upon an enormous acre lot on the outskirts of the city. But given the constraints of Michael's work and domestic duties (and, now I realize, the quiet but inexorable progress of his disease), there was little time to really devote to this all-consuming task. There were one or two over the first years in this home but generally the learning-to-skate duties fell to me who homeschooled these four children and spent the most time with them. I discovered local arenas that offered free skating twice a week throughout the year so that became the biggest part of our phys-ed programme. Often we were the only visitors and had the entire arena to ourselves. We happily did laps to lousy pop music, and races were held up and down the ice. Anna practised figure skating moves she'd taught herself. We almost always hit the doughnut shop for treats afterwards.

None of our kids ever had a single skating lesson, my approach being more from the sink-or-swim (skate?) methodology books. But they all learned to skate, some better than others. I skated for so many years pushing one child then another in a stroller on the ice, I was worried that when the last one grew wings on his feet I would be incapable of standing up without the comforting support of a child in a stroller. I was never as confident as my husband on skates.

It was once our youngest child, our only son, began hockey and became an addict like his dad that the real devotion to the backyard rink began. With a vigour and enthusiasm heretofore unseen for this task, Michael would start to plan the rink as soon as the snow started falling, spending hours packing it down, perfecting strategies over the years for flooding and creating the ideal rink which, of course, was always subject to the vagaries of the weather. Every year it expanded as the youngest grew into a more confident hockey player. They would spend hours out there passing the puck and taking shots on goal (we have a full-sized hockey net, of course). One year our son laboriously painted wobbly lines on the ice with his little paint box. Only a few years ago we spent far too much money on a "Zamboni" made from sewer pipes, towels and an attachment for the hose; it actually works. Dedication was complete, nearly a religious experience.

Over the years the disease wore my husband down and the task became too onerous. He would try but couldn't really carry through because physically and mentally it was becoming too difficult. Confusion had taken hold of his brain, making the planning and execution impossible.

But a wondrous thing had happened in the years that father and son had worked side-by-side on this shared passion: our son had learned the family business and started to take over. There were a couple of difficult years as the baton was being passed, while Father came to terms with his interfering disease, demoting him to support staff, and Son took over as the Boss, making all the decisions about the construction. Finally, Michael seems to have accepted his subordinate role and is simply happy to contribute.

This year the rink construction began just before Christmas, but with our son's busy work and social life, it wasn't looking terribly hopeful that this project would take off. I questioned why he had even started, given his limited available time to devote to it, but his response hit a chord with me. He assured me that really it didn't matter if it was ever completed. What mattered to him was the process and how much he loved it. This I realized was true of his father who seemed so much at peace engaged in this rather Zen-like activity. A perfectly finished rink was just a bonus, not necessarily the goal.

I realized another thing too. Our son's initiative this year has been a gift, something for his dad to enjoy. With all the drama surrounding Michael's health last winter combined with unfavourable weather conditions, the rink never got started. With winter now upon us, Michael has become almost completely house-bound and unwilling to go anywhere. The effort seems just too Herculean. He spends most of his day dozing on the couch in front of the television, and when I ask if he'd like to go outside with me, he nearly always declines. But as soon as our rink got to the point where it actually looked like more than just packed down snow, there seemed to be a renewed interest in the outdoors. Every morning I prop him up in his hospital bed, fling open the curtains and let him see through his window to the backyard. He quietly assesses the progress our son has made overnight, most of the work being done very late after all have gone to bed as his dad used to do in the good years. In the afternoon when Michael is at his best physically, I find him pulling on his boots and coat preparing to go out and have a look. He inspects the rink for the weak spots that need extra attention and then, with my help hauling out the hose for him, he sets about flooding. He falls all the time, every few seconds in fact, but he is undeterred. He pulls himself up on the ice, no easy feat for someone with advanced Parkinson's disease, and carries on, usually in a rather haphazard, confused fashion but who cares? I am vigilant at the living room window, seated at a table and pretending to type on my computer; I don't want him to think I am really just keeping an eye on him. When it looks like he can no longer carry on I suggest he come inside before he seizes up completely. His pants are drenched from the many falls into the unfrozen water and his back is obviously hurting but his cheeks are flushed with fresh air and pleasure.

I miss skating with my husband. After he left work disabled in 2003, we would seek out those same arenas I visited years ago with our kids, this time for seniors' free skate. On a good day he might last about fifteen minutes before collapsing with exhaustion. For the first time in our lives together I had become the better skater, a distinction I'd rather not have. Now he in his advanced condition and I still fearful after breaking my wrist skating on the canal two years ago, we will probably never skate together again.

But I can help him in small ways to get out and happily lose himself in a few minutes of rink-building. And perhaps he'll even strap on those skates again this year.

(* from Jethro Tull's "Skating Away")

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