Yesterday I was at Hanlan’s Point, my GPS location for self-imposed exile. Here, I lie supine and allow the lake to pull my mind away. The trembling aspens rustle and cicadas buzz at a pitch that is more of an alarm to me—summer is already gathering up its carefree days in fast pursuit of the fall. The cicadas are early this year, they are usually indicative of sizzling late August afternoons where humidity hangs like a wet duvet on our shoulders.
The sun is already setting a minute earlier each night. Yesterday the sun set at 8:45, tonight, 8:44. While the sun was still blistering hot and turning the pale-skinned gingers into Maine lobsters, I snapped open a beer. The bathtub-warm Mill Street Lemon Tea beer was effervescent in my mouth, and the tepid temperature hurled me several latitudes over, to Simba beers in the Congo sun.
Two men walked past me at Hanlan’s as I skimmed the condensation off the beer can and dragged my hand across the back of my neck. The men were holding hands, laughing without inhibition, ankle-deep in the lake water. They were the colour of teak furniture. A Porter jet took to the sky with a distant growl—Boston? New York? Chicago? It banked and slid into the atmosphere and pillowy clouds beyond the aspens above my head.
I dog-eared the 37th page of The Outport People, a book about the zany brood that breathe life into a seemingly uninhabitable island called Baleena. There are no roads, no cars, no telephones. It’s Claire Mowatss best-selling memoir based on the five years she and Farley lived in Newfoundland. My mind was already in too many places to focus on Newfoundland.
Again, I disappeared to the Congo despite staring at the Toronto skyline and the sailboats skating across the surface of the water in front of me. Just one year ago I was popping the remaining Malarone anti-malarial pills out of their foil seal into my cupped hand, sad to see the numbers dwindle by day. My eyes were strained from trying to absorb all the jacaranda trees, brilliant hibiscus and termite hills as tall as flagpoles. I was desperate to take in all that surrounded me. I studied the texture of Mikai’s hair and cool skin. I searched for the history and future in her eyes that were as dark as the African coffee I sipped. The chimp I held in my arms would be a mighty adult next time I saw her. She would no longer be gently accepting spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt and sucking on warm milk sweetened with honey. In a year, she would find her place among the troop, no longer coddled and fussed over as the babe in arms.
A year ago I was running around the fairways of the Lubumbashi Golf Course, listening to the same songs on my iPod that fuel my route through Riverdale Park and along the Don River in Toronto today. Chantal would meet me after my run and we would sit in the still of the morning, watching the copper mine bigwigs teeing off in ill-fitting plaids and stripes. More often it was the wives of the bigwigs in wide-brimmed hats and equally wide-rimmed sunglasses.
Days later, far from the idyllic morning runs around the greens with the fanfare of grinning, waving Congolese children, I was touching down in Harare, Zimbabwe and Nairobi. All that was familiar and quintissential Africa grew smaller and smaller, until it seemed like a child’s train set, not a real world, below the plane. The dust was still under my nails, in my nose, and deep in the stitching of everything I had worn.
I was leaving, again. And returning. And leaving. My brain needed sutures to hold everything I had seen together.
A year ago, I held a hastily stamped Kenya exit visa in my hand. My passport felt heavier with the miles that it had permitted. I landed in Toronto, elated and exhausted. I shared startling stories with my parents like a kid strung out on Halloween candy. I pulled up the photos on my laptop and sat in disbelief that I had actually been to such a place. I described each of the chimps, all 23, their names, their quirks. I watched my mom laugh until she couldn’t breathe over video footage of Mikai clobbering the kitten with a stuffed animal. I felt like I was describing someone else’s life.
We drank champagne in my parents zen backyard with Yanni and the babbling fish pond and citronella candles creating a path that replicated a parade of fireflies. The humming mosquitoes were a nuisance, but not a constant worry like their African counterparts.
I said goodbye, again, to my parents, to Dax, to the backyard that I hadn’t sat in long enough. I didn’t know what my five year plan was. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what my five day plan was.
The urban sprawl of paved Toronto lit up like the most fantastic Lite Brite display, glowing and blurring until I let myself find sleep on the flight to the west coast.
A year ago, and a week from now, I was in BC. The Fraser Valley spread wide below the plane’s wings in a neat patchwork quilt of blueberry and raspberry fields. The snow on Mt. Baker’s peak bounced the glare of the sun back onto my window.
I was coming home, but felt split between the provinces and the peace found in the burning sunsets of the Congo. Home was a sharp slap of reality. My stories stalled in the face of Mila, the most darling lab in the world. She was dying and I felt like I had five hearts beating in my chest, and still, not enough blood for all my limbs.
I unpacked from Africa, and packed again for Toronto. For good. A once familiar life and routine was dissolving and passing through my hands that could only grasp the immediate moment. I spent hours in the grass with Mila, crying like a fool, begging her to slip away. It would be okay. I’m not sure who I was reassuring– myself, or her. Both of us, I think.
I felt like I had live goldfish living in my stomach. My eyes burned like they were full of poison ivy. A year ago and a week from today, I wondered what was right. What was wrong?
Nothing felt right, even my skin felt unfamiliar over my bones. Jann reminded me, “life is fleeting.”
And I touched down at Pearson a week later. Mila died the very next day. I found solace in unexpected places, and comfort, even on the hardwood floor of Dax’s condo.
A year ago, I stood at the edge of the quarry in the Congo, knowing life was changing as fast as the landscapes would be under my feet in that week. I stood on a ferry the next day, crossing Lake Ontario to Ward’s Island with my anxious parents, who didn’t expect to see me again until Christmas. The next day I was at Hayward Lake, BC, watching Mila swim out into the cool depths for the very last time.
And I return. To Lake Ontario, with my feet in the sand. I still see Hayward Lake, I see Lake Victoria too. I see the quarry and all of the Congo. My mind revisits the year and all the geography in between.
I am lucky not for what I have seen, but for what I have felt. And there’s no passport to show for that. Just this.