Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Christmas 1999

Another holiday season, another holiday letter, on the eve of what most are calling the new millenium.

It’s really quite incredible to believe this is my seventh annual letter given that the first, in 1993, was – in my mind at least – just barely disguised as a “Well since this could very well be my last Christmas…” tome! Yet I also recall it to be a semi-annual letter to my friend Nance, in Niagara, and a deliberate attempt to brighten the spirits of my close friend Jim, who was to die of AIDS just weeks later. The letter has since become a tradition I, if not others, expect of me each year – a bit of a self-indulgent summary of the past year through the lens of this occasional navel-gazer.

There are many folks on my mailing list for the first time in 1999. The largest numbers among these are friends from Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, which I joined last spring. I am all the richer for having these new friends from our exceptional choir, the Spong readers’ group, the lesbigay social group and the congregation in general, in my life. It feels so good to again be part of the church denomination of my youth. The choir has been a challenge, particularly as Christmas has drawn closer. I’m not sure I still have the energy required for the task, but I’ll re-examine that in 2000. I’m finding rehearsals long and Sunday morning choir warm-ups very early, considering the time I need to take my medications beforehand.

Perhaps the single biggest milestone for me (and there were others) this year was the odometer on my body clock turning past 40. I can remember wondering, as a kid, what it would be like to reach that old age – not realizing that my definition of “old” would be pushed back the closer I got to it. Mom and Dad don’t even seem old anymore! The fact is, no matter how young I may feel inside, it seems to me we’re all starting to show our age. (“Gammy”, my maternal grandmother, turned 95 in November. Now that is old!)

The grand occasion of my fortieth, last October 26, was marked by a dinner with friends at Mandarin – an all-you-can-eat buffet which I did my best to dent. Who would have thought that there would be a fortieth when many of the same people gathered for my thirty-sixth – with signs of my advanced illness quite apparent. Well there was a fortieth, and I have the picture to prove it.

Shortly thereafter I got a haircut (with the best comments being something along the lines of “It makes you look so much younger!”). I had been growing my locks since a complete shaving of my skull in late 1994, but I grew tired of all the care it required (and it showed!). Considering how important I thought my long hair was, I do not miss it in the least. It never looked as good as I dreamed it should.

I took possession of my first set of bifocals in November. Last year at this time my optometrist had said I was a candidate for them, but I had opted to try to go one more year without. It seemed to be less of an option this year, as the newspaper crosswords were rubbing black ink on my nose with increasing frequency while – at other times – my arms weren’t long enough.

Besides a terrific week or so in Perth with Mom and Dad (during wild orchid season in Purdon), Montreal was about as far as I went on a vacation this year, but it was a great trip. It had been a few years since I had been “home” but I quickly became reacquainted with the city, and quite sentimental as well. In fact, waiting for a bus near the peak of Mount Royal, I told an American tourist – making small talk about my adopted home - that Toronto didn’t have as much of the natural beauty of which Montreal can boast. (I’d much rather see a skyline from the crest of a mountain than from the top of a communications tower.)

Montreal, despite its hills, is very conducive to walking. One morning I took the bus to Mount Royal (for pictures at a different time of day) from the home of Craig and Claude, then walked down the slope to Dominion Square. On another day, though, I walked all the way up Peel – then took a combination of buses and subway from the summit to Outremont, and on back to Craig’s on “Le Plateau”.

It was quite an historic week to be in the city, given the death of the former mayor, Jean Drapeau. I visited the site of one of his greatest legacies, Expo ’67, which is still a beautiful – if not profoundly different – park. (It was quite disconcerting to ask for directions from a park employee so young she hadn’t been born before the 1976 Montreal Olympics, much less Expo ‘67! This is the type of thing that makes me realize how…er…middle-aged I am.)

By the way, and completely off-topic, I’m sure my mind is not the only one boggled to remember it was thirty years ago last summer that humankind set foot on the moon – thirty years! This, as the tangent unwinds, reminds me of Pierre Trudeau’s eightieth birthday this fall. I was amazed to read in the Toronto Star that few high school kids, albeit a small sample, hardly knew anything about the former Prime Minister. Granted I was a history buff in school. Surely, if for no other reason (and there are plenty more), Trudeau was remarkable for his charisma and shenanigans on the world stage. Then again, the kids interviewed used sayings like “like you know” and “so” – as in, “Like, you know, with so much going on in like the world today it seems just so not okay to ‘dis’ us about not knowing who this like old guy was.” (not a direct quote, admittedly). And is it my imagination or do kids talk much, much faster nowadays (not that this would come across in the Star!)? Any doubts I’m getting old yet?

Now I’ll try to get back on track to my Montreal vacation. From Expo, I returned to the city centre by ferry – a new experience, having been driven to and from the fair as a child. The ferry docks are near Bonsecours Church in the old port lands. “Old Montreal” hooked me for a good two days or so of roaming around, taking in the rich history that thrives there – although Craig had warned me that Notre Dame Basilica’s “dumbed-down” history recalls it as the site of Celine Dion’s wedding. Sure enough, Celine’s nuptials were mentioned, along with those of a Montreal Canadiens hockey star.

I spent a week in hospital shortly after returning to Toronto. As alarming as it seemed at the time, this was the first hospitalization I had experienced since my HIV diagnosis in 1989. I had begun to think I might have to be struggling for my last breaths before Mike Harris would ever let me into hospital. Fortunately my specialist pulls more weight than the Premier at Toronto General - when it comes to hospital admissions. As a matter of fact I had the distinct impression that when the HIV clinic doctors want an admission they get it, no matter how far off protocol it may seem. American Express, eat your heart out! HIV/AIDS – membership has its privileges!

I was admitted with symptoms of lightheadedness, brought on by low blood pressure which, in turn, was caused by severe dehydration – the result of cumulative side effects to my medications (not helped, I’m sure, by the aforementioned walking in Montreal or long bike rides in Toronto). As is typical, I didn’t have enough cash on me for a cab to the hospital so I took the streetcar over to University Avenue, then wavered in the gusty breezes like a just-planted willow tree. As I walked into the closest hospital entrance, which was actually an administrative area, I had to lean against the walls until I found someone to help me. Then I was wheeled to the Emergency Department, where I was admitted. (They had seen me the day before, with identical symptoms, but sent me home after giving me two or three bags of intravenous fluids.)

The hospital stay was an interesting experience, to say the least. I shared a room with an older man whose personal sewage system was backed up. Members of his large family (large in every sense of the word) broke all rules, with daily apologies from the man’s wife, when it came to numbers of visitors at one time, length of visits, decibel levels of conversations, etc. It was a mixed blessing to be unable to understand the language they spoke! He was obviously very sick or I might have complained. All the more reason, on the other hand, to insist the guy rest.

It was fascinating to watch the detective work, among the seasoned doctors and residents, which went into finding out what was wrong with me. It felt a bit like a live autopsy. The worst-case scenario had me dealing with more neuropathy, miscommunication from the brain that already makes my feet go unpredictably from numb to tingly to numb again. This time, the doctor theorized, it was in the muscles around the heart. The resulting low blood pressure would explain the lightheadedness. Another squad of very young folks from kidney class worked on scenarios of their own, which included a blood test from an artery, rather than a vein, that I won’t soon forget – drawn by their supervising doctor no less. Physicians should be allowed nowhere near needles!

On the day I was ultimately discharged I was taken for a “tilt table” test, to see why my blood pressure had been dropping so abruptly – earlier in the week - as I moved from a seated to a standing position. Even before all the goo and tape had been removed from me it was quite clear that everything was normal. If anything, the specialist reported, I had high blood pressure. A strange sense of relief came over me as I reclaimed my rightful place in the Chaplin and McGinnis medical history books!

The bottom line, after a whole week of this, was dehydration due to side effects of my medications.

I have experienced similar symptoms since August, but have been able to deal with them at home – first with the help of my friend downstairs, Bill, a.k.a. “Nurse Ratchet”, then on my own. It seems that I am too thin to risk missing a single meal, and I need to constantly re-hydrate as I don’t have a lot of storage space. It’s been a challenge to keep to my medication regimen as well, what with a tug-of-war between side effects and good results. However my specialist gave me a bit of a lecture in November and I’ve been diligent ever since. I’m back to using a beeper to remind me to take my pills and syrup. Self-care, I am finding, is a full-time job and I’m not always at peak performance.

As I reread this I am struck by the similarities to my memories of adolescence - old folks on my newspaper route, usually living alone, with seemingly little else to do but recount their litany of aches and pains to occasional visitors. Chalk it up to another milestone – my first HIV/AIDS-related hospital stay and a reminder of how fragile my health is. Besides, the trauma of it all didn’t begin to really strike me until I had come home.

To my credit, if I do say so myself, I have tried to stay quite active over the year. I have occasionally questioned whether I may be over-extending myself, given my propensity to live in an untidy apartment and eat and drink the necessities of life so minimally. Yet I get a lot out of the church choir, my work with people with AIDS and addictions, volunteering as “monitor” at the computer learning centre in my building, answering the phones during the CJRT-FM fundraising drives and so on. Email has made it easy to write “letters to the editor” to occasionally vent my spleen, too, keeping my nose in the political realm.

For those who don’t know, and be assured I’m paid nothing to tell you this, CJRT-FM is a PBS-style radio station which relies on listeners to pay roughly half its annual budget. Recently very limited advertising has been added to the mix to help defray some costs but listener support remains very important. With such a varied programming schedule, ranging from continuing education classes from Ryerson Polytechnic University to children’s stories to “The Prairie Home Companion” to classical to jazz, it isn’t the sort of media buy that the McDonald’s or Pepsi-Colas of the world would snap up. Besides, CJRT’s license limits the amount of commercial time it can sell. I know there are other people and agencies with far greater financial needs but this telephone volunteering is not physically or emotionally taxing, it’s something I enjoy and – besides - it’s still fun being around a radio station. The music it offers is something that feeds my spirit, too, which ought not be overlooked.

Last summer I saw Scott Turow interviewed and decided I needed to read his mysteries – and read more of anything, with less television. In the same way I like my weekend newspaper to be in order when I read it, as opposed to being in a disheveled pile as I usually find it at my door, I felt I had to read Turow’s books in order. Only recently, however, have I put my mind to it and, therefore, have just finished reading Presumed Innocent.

What a pleasure it was to be at the launch reception, in October, for Jacob’s Blessing: Hopes, Dreams, and Visions for the Church by Donna Sinclair and Christopher White. (Donna, who’s on this mailing list, wrote an article for the United Church Observer a few years ago about we Chaplins and our faith-through-struggles.)

I’ve also been rereading Why Christianity Must Change Or Die by Bishop John Shelby Spong (or “Jack” as he called himself when I heard him speak in Brantford this fall). It has been a great resource as I continue to journey through spiritual questions.

With the holidays upon us, I look forward to being in Perth with as many of the family as can be there. It’s been a while since I had a good feed of turkey, having gone to Swiss Chalet for Thanksgiving, so I’m looking forward to some of Mom’s best work. I jokingly refer to “Walton’s Mountain”. The food, the fireplace, the love of family, the snow in the historic beauty of Perth – what’s not to look forward to? I count myself blessed indeed, considering how emotionally difficult the holidays can be for so many.

As for “the new millenium”, I’ve long been in the now growing camp that finally realizes the twenty-first century doesn’t start until 2001, but I’ll take fireworks whenever they’re offered! This 2000 craze misses the point that there was no Year Zero. As well, our calendar is so arbitrary – in a global sense it’s laughable - yet we virtually dictate to the world what year it ought to be. I wonder what year it is to, say, First Nations’ people or any number of other cultures around the world? The Jewish people are already at the Year 5670 (okay, so I read that in a Jewish newspaper editorial…I’m not that smart!)

It seems passing strange that so much money has been poured into fixing the Y2K problem – money spent by and for the same people who didn’t have the foresight to see that a two-digit year couldn’t last very long in a computer.

Stepping down from my soap-box(es), and beginning to listen to my Charlie Brown Christmas CD, I sincerely wish you all the best in the coming days, whatever the year, in whatever millenium - one sunrise and one sunset at a time!