Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's not just a car... it's a Karmann Ghia!

When I was out and about yesterday running some errands downtown, I noticed an Audi TT Roadster and smiled. Now don't you fret, I'm still as anti 'car culture' as ever but I've had a life-long love of beautiful design and the Audi TT Roadster is one great looking car.

The reason it makes me smile is that its silhouette is very familiar to anyone who knows what a VW Karmann Ghia looks like. I had a vague memory of having seen a couple of them over the years but when I met Chris I entered the world of Ghia.
Chris and his mom, circa 1979

When he was little, his mom had a beautiful sky-blue Ghia and Chris rued the day his parents sold that car, vowing to get one for himself when he could afford it. The Ghia is not a practical car by any stretch of the imagination – completely useless as a family vehicle, especially for Canadian winters. It is however a sporty, sassy, gorgeously retro, little summer run-around and it's also available as a convertible!

Chris, being a collector by nature, had an eclectic assortment of Ghia ‘objets d’art’ – mostly acquired courtesy of eBay. These included a set of collector’s cards, a keychain, a sticker, a rubber stamp, a T-shirt, a lapel pin, a ball cap, a die-cast car model, and… a slightly rusty hubcap (don't ask). One of the first gifts I gave Chris was a framed Ghia post-card.

When Chris was accepted into the PhD program, I promised him I would buy him a Ghia as a graduation present. I caught him on more than one occasion perusing the eBay Motors site looking at available models. He never did get to even test-drive one and I’m not sure how he would have squeezed his 6’2” frame into the low, cramped interior but hot damn, he would have looked good driving that car!

“Where to, beautiful?” he would have asked, his blue eyes twinkling behind cool shades, beaming with pleasure as he drove off towards a new adventure. (Damn car culture!)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lost voices

There was an interesting little story in yesterday's news about an elderly gentleman in New York state whose wife passed away in 2005. Catherine Whiting had left a voicemail message on their answering service before she died and her husband Charles had listened to it each day since her death, finding comfort in the sound of her voice. When their service was upgraded however, the message was lost. After hearing his story, the phone company launched a database search and were able to retrieve the digital recording of Catherine Whiting's voice. The wonders of digital technology.

Several days after Chris passed away, I was going through old messages on our answering machine and there was one from Chris that he had left only a few days before he died. Still stunned from his sudden death, I remember the shock of hearing his voice. I can't even describe how bizarre and wonderful it was to hear his warm voice streaming out of that little silver box, wrapping me in comfort and slapping me in the face all at the same time. It was a breezy, affectionate little message like any other he had left a thousand times before. He signed off - like always - saying "love you".

That message was lost to me several weeks afterwards when our power went out for a brief time. The moment it happened I knew that Chris' voice was gone. I was so angry, so frustrated that a brief accident of lost electrical current could snatch away that tiny precious moment of intimacy Chris left to me. I remember yelling at the answering machine when the power came back on, viciously pouring all my frustration and anger over it's ability to come back to life when Chris could not. Stupid *#^% machine!!

When I was emptying out my parents' house after they had to move into a nursing home, I found a reel to reel recording of speeches made at their wedding reception. What a wonderful moment, holding that treasure from the past in my hands. Not even knowing of its existence! I had a CD copy made and now I can listen to the voices of my Grandpa Charles, my uncle Doug, and my dad - all of them now passed away. Hearing their voices makes my memories of them so much more real.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Legacy of learning

A couple of months ago I wrote about the scholarship I wanted to create in Chris' memory and now - with the help of friends and family - that initiative will come to life.

Several months after his sudden death last July, I met with representatives of the library school where Chris & I met as grad students to discuss ways in which his life could be honoured. It was quickly agreed that one of the best ways would be to support the same passion in a new generation of Library and Information Science (LIS) students.

Chris' curiosity and openness to new knowledge led him not only to PhD studies but also to explore interests as varied as cooking, travel, music, Russian literature, and mini-golf! He had the rare gift of true joy in learning and generously shared his knowledge with others. Many of us have had the experience of leaving a get-together with Chris more energized and excited about our own endeavours than when we arrived.

We've established an award named the Christopher Mathew Dixon LIS Memorial Scholarship. It will be awarded once annually to a Master's or Doctoral LIS student who not only shows the same passion for the field in which Chris studied, but who also exemplifies a commitment to making his or her community a better place through active and ongoing volunteer work.

I've donated some "seed money" to start the ball rolling and now we're appealing to faculty, alumni, staff, colleagues, family, and friends to help build the endowment so that this scholarship can be awarded to deserving students for many years to come.

To make a gift you can donate securely on line. If you prefer to make a donation by mail or telephone, or if you have any questions, please contact Karen Boddy, Alumni & Development Officer, by e-mail or call (519) 661-2111, ext. 87463.

This living legacy would not have come to life without the dedication of several people in particular at the faculty who are very dear to Chris and me. I affectionately think of them as the Three Musketeers (3M for short) - I hope they know how much I appreciate their support.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's a small EPS world

Several months ago, I stumbled across an Internet reference to a book entitled Barry's Stolen Life. The book was written by Linda Sweetland about her 28 year old son Barry who died of complications from kidney disease in 2003.

What made me take a second - and then a third - look at this reference was the startling series of coincidences between Barry and Chris' stories. In the end I ordered a copy of the book for myself and read it in one sitting. The book is self-published and is - as many such projects are - a labour of love rather than a literary masterpiece.

Like Chris, Barry was born seemingly healthy but began to show evidence of underlying problems at a young age. The coincidences begin: both were diagnosed with Reflux Nephropathy at a young age; both had surgery in an attempt to correct the problem; both were ultimately diagnosed with End Stage Renal Disease; both underwent hemodialysis, kidney transplants, and peritoneal dialysis; both suffered through peritonitis; both lived active and happy lives; and both married their sweethearts shortly before their sudden deaths. Barry and Becky were married for little over two weeks. Chris and I had nine months.

It was complications from the relatively innocuous peritoneal dialysis that caused them both to develop a rare condition called Encapsulating Peritoneal Sclerosis (EPS). The condition seems to mainly occur in patients who have undergone peritoneal dialysis for longer than five years. The statistics rise the longer the treatment is used – but even so the rate hovers around a lowly 3% of dialysis patients who develop EPS. Chris' team of nephrology specialists had seen less than a handful of cases over the span of 20 years in the field.

Even specialists studying EPS do not yet understand what triggers it in some patients but not others. EPS causes the normally tissue-thin peritoneal membrane to become thickened and impenetrable, making the fluid exchange of dialysis impossible but also slowly encasing the digestive organs thereby cutting off nutrient absorption.

Chris had undergone several surgeries and was receiving experimental drug therapy for his EPS – we’ll never know if he would have been cured. Barry suffered terribly from the condition and in my heart I am relieved that Chris (and I) never had to endure such distress. He never expressed regrets for having chosen peritoneal dialysis as a treatment method. He always spoke of the freedom it gave him - to travel, to work, to live.

According to the book, a percentage of the profits from its sale will be donated to research into the condition. The International Society for Peritoneal Dialysis is working with several specialists to create an international EPS registry to aid in the research of this rare condition.

You may be wondering how I could read Linda's book. I’m not sure. I’m a reader, a learner, by nature. It’s one of the ways I understand life and cope with issues I don’t understand. As well, the coincidences were almost freakish and I wanted to see how someone else had coped with such similar experiences. We're all learning and that doesn't always mean choosing the easiest path.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Daily salvation and the bloody persistence of memories

I've had such a hard time (pardon the pun!) putting into words how time has become an increasingly fluid and elastic element in my life since Chris died.

Most people find that time seems to continually, exponentially, and freakishly speed along faster and faster with each passing year. How can it not trip up over itself and turn our minds inside out!? (Maybe it does – we just call it Alzheimer’s.)

What I’ve experienced since Chris’ death is a not linear in any sense. Suddenly time bends backwards and slows down; it rockets forward and stops. I never know what any given day is going to feel like when I wake up in the morning. Will it be a day of moving forward and looking ahead or will it be a looking glass day? Will I find myself tumbling down the rabbit hole where time and reality and logic have no relevance?

One of many traditions I picked up from my mom was to sit down early in January every year with the new and old years’ calendars and write in birthdays, anniversaries, etc for the coming year. I knew that it would be an emotional minefield this year but habit won out.

The memories leapt to life from each little numbered square: love notes, medical appointments, travel plans, house-hunting visits, anniversaries - many of them in Chris’ near indecipherable scribble. Some he never lived to see: the closing date of the house we bought three weeks before he died, our first anniversary, his 35th birthday.

Each memory is marked in my mind not only for how long ago it happened but also by how long it would be from that day until the day Chris died… like two mirror images of the same inevitable reality; like two speeding trains heading towards each other. “This week last year…” “It would be two months to the day of his death.” It’s an easy game to get caught up in.

I sometimes feel like I’m standing at the corner of a set of mirrors that reflect images into infinity. At the corner point is the moment of Chris’ death and everything in my mind seems reflected through that instant. That instant which never seems to fade or drift in and out of focus like other memories. That instant when everything changed and time stopped being logical.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Winter wonderland

It finally stopped snowing a couple of hours ago.

After being holed up in my beige concrete apartment box all day, I suddenly wanted to be out in the still whiteness of the night.

It’s so beautiful. It takes my breath away. Stepping out in front of our building, I stand for a moment and taste the cool fresh air.

I let myself fall backwards into a snow bank and savour the soft wet fresh smell as the snow flakes rise up in little clouds about my head and then flutter back down. The storm has scrubbed the sky clean and the scattered clouds hang like tattered lace curtains high above my head. Before walking on, I smile at my sleeping snow angel shadow.

The streets are empty and quiet. No one is out. I feel deliciously alone in this fairyland, like I’ve walked through a door in a dream. I hope that I don’t see anyone as I walk the streets – I don’t want words or noise to break this beautiful silence.

The snow is knee-deep where a vague furrow marks the path of the sidewalk underneath. Here and there benches stand like abandoned sections of country fence railing, their seats and legs coyly hidden just below the snow.

A white plastic bag snagged high up in a tree branch catches my eye. It billows out like a Barbie-sized spinnaker sail, holds its breath for a moment, and then softly collapses with a silent sigh. I stand in the middle of the empty street and watch it for awhile as if looking on a sleeping child.

The streetlights cast yellow and blue tinged pools over the satin-shiny fresh snow, tempting me to walk still farther. I come to a sign that says “Path not maintained during winter.” and so I climb up over the snow bank, lifting my knees high with each step into the uncharted wilderness of the path that leads to the pool house. Halfway along I stop and look behind me. My steps have left neat boot-shaped holes deep in the powdery drifts. At the end of the path I leave another snow angel calling card for the sidewalk ploughs that will come early tomorrow morning.

On my way home I see an uncommonly tall and straight evergreen tree. Each swayed branch is outlined in white like a rib-bone, its twin mirrored on the other side of the trunk and I can’t help but see a tall fish skeleton! I blink and it’s a tree again.

I slowly walk along the side of the street, glancing up at the sighing plastic bag as I pass underneath it again. The only sounds are the faint hum of the occasional street lamp and the first street ploughs far away in the distance.

I look up into the night sky, searching for stars but none appear and so I head home, my mittens and pants damp with snow and a smile in my heart. Chris would have loved this night.