Enid Mary Elizabeth Howden

I’d been waiting for this call, off and on, for several years. When we gathered in 2001 to say our goodbyes, we were only slightly more surprised than she was when my mother awoke from a near-coma and wondered, wide-eyed, “Am I still HERE?” But when Big Sister called and said, “I think you should come right away,” I wasn’t ready. I had packing to do, work that felt urgent, a little boy to prepare for a road trip, and a head and heart to examine. I knew Mum was more than ready to leave this world behind, and I wanted to be in hearty and complete approval.

About halfway to Hamilton, Pam called again. “Where are you? Do your best, but you might not make it.” I got misty, but kept on driving while I murmured my requests to other kingdoms. Sam was awake in his booster seat, and unusually quiet. He knew whatever a six-year-old can understand of death. I felt the sweetness of solitary meditation, purposeful motion and the best of company, all at the same time. And about 45 minutes later came the last call. “She’s gone. Don’t rush. Be safe.” So I missed Mum’s last moments, missed the bedside family choir (off-pitch, no doubt!) and their send-off hymns and hand-holding. And that was all okay with me. My heart was fine, my goodbye felt whole and good, and the best farewells at this point were spiritual ones, anyway. Knowing it would be a late-night Howden festival, I tried to get Sam to sleep. I told him the 86-year tale of Enid M.E. (Skinner) Howden: her sisters, her work, her husband, her interests, her five children, and those 13 grand-kids. Well, there was no sleeping there, especially as we got closer to number 13. Sam loved that story.

Sam finally did fall asleep briefly, while I met his big brother Will at the Hamilton bus station and headed for Idlewyld Manor, where Mum had lived out her final and steadily declining months. There were no more hymns, but her body was still in her bed. She didn’t look much different that night, the 26th of October, than she had when I last saw her alive on Thanksgiving weekend. Not much was working for her then. Her legs were useless except for restlessness and discomfort. She was hugely weary. Daily activities, for this sociable and energetic woman, had become very narrow and limited, and the world beyond her bed was often alarming and incomprehensible. Except when her family was by her side. It was so easy to bring joy to her, and sometimes even a good old joke. She could recite Psalm 23, her high school fight song, and Portia’s mercy speech from Merchant of Venice, in which she’d starred a mere seven decades before. She thrilled to see the faces of her children. She’d nearly never had a bad word to say about anyone, and now she had nothing ill to say of her life or its end. She was distilled spirit.

So I sat with that exhausted shell that had been my mother dear. I sent more beseeching out to wherever it is that prayers go, and got a little more specific with my requests. I called for a warm welcome for Mum from my father and from some of the departed ones that I have most admired. Among them was the Canadian Bahá’í pioneer Mary Maxwell, later known as Ruhíyyih Khanúm, who was on one of her epic journeys when her vehicle broke down in an African wilderness. She turned to her companion and said, “Well, whom do you know Up There who was a mechanic?” (Now that’s a specific, a practical kind of faith. That’s humour and grace on the rocks.) Also among those souls I called upon to welcome Mum, though, was old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She had been an Indians fan long before the Blue Jays received her loyal allegiance, and this was a bit of spiritual whimsy that she would have enjoyed. I certainly did, though it was slightly compromised by my later discovery that Mr. Colavito is still among us. Now, Mum must have really enjoyed that.

Diana took the train down to join us for the weekend of family plans, story-telling, laughter and commiseration. All sweet. The family gathered to bury Mum on Monday, October 30th, and I walked very happily around the streets of my home town on that sunny day. My bride, my littlest boy and I got back to Ottawa the next day, and I wrote this quick note to our friends and neighbours.

My lovely Mum died last Thursday. She was a great lady and an example of some of the best and most important things in life, say I, and she will continue to be, especially in the way of her passing. “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee; wherefore dost thou grieve?…Death proferreth unto every confident believer the cup that is life indeed. It bestoweth joy, and is the bearer of gladness…” I have never known the reality of these beautiful words (from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words and from Gleanings) as much as I have felt them with Mum’s death. She was a “confident believer”, a steadfast Christian who was open to all and accepting of the many paths to the Creator. “I’m content with my lot,” she had told me near the end, possibly her last words to me. “I’ve had good kids.” Her “wonderful family” was the thing that she remembered and treasured, and all the disappointments and difficulties of her life, even the very limited physical/mental life she had for the last couple of years, were nothing to her. She was unafraid to die, and she was grateful in the midst of all. She was loving and generous and the doors of her house and her friendship were wide open. It was a sweet goodbye for our family and community of friends, and a radiant departure by Enid M.E. Howden. 

Most of you wouldn’t know my mother, so I hope you’ll indulge me this little remembrance. I couldn’t help myself. My older sons, Ben, Will and Dave, helped to carry her body to its resting place next to that of my father. I was strangled with pride in these terrific men and with love for all my family.

(I also wrote about Mum as part of my ODY web log. It’s a mid-life odyssey, and the loss of a parent is archetypal even in the midst of writing about a dysfunctional relationship with a guitar. It’s here.)

Paradise by the Carney Lights

Well, maybe not paradise, exactly, but I found a small flood of spirit in the midst of Mammon last night. The Ottawa SuperEx was opening in all its sticky-fingered, gut-heaving glory. The girls had layered on the mascara extra-thick, the boys were gelled and bare of arm, and the same classic rock was blaring from (mostly) the same rides. And I swear that the exact same guys were trying to extract money from my pocket as when I was a flat-bellied kid trying hard to impersonate a Man at the county fair. Can’t win if you don’t spin.

But weirdly enough, just next to the BMX Oooh-Factor Bike Ramp – not its real name – was a stage preparing for a “Joy of Faith” concert. Prayer and proclamation facing down snowcones and kewpie dolls. Hymns and dancing and spoken Word versus the Ferris wheel. It was an odd conjunction but a rather sweet one. The Hindu and Jewish community choirs were in full voice, as were a Mormon crooner and a Muslim rapper who mixed gangsta sounds with between-takes appeals for peace and understanding. The Jain and Sikh communities delighted with colour and dance, and a thundering band of evangelical Christians blended power chords with the Book of Revelations. Bahá’í youth sang and spoke and played in French, English and Gypsy Swing. (Django Reinhardt at the corner of Faith and the Fair! That was better than fun.)

Beside the contrast between the midway and the spirit way, there was an ethic of appreciation for the different ways in which communities express devotion. Some groups were clearly more comfortable than others with this concept of a shared spiritual heritage, seeing unity within religious diversity. But they all came to the table, and they carried something more than caramel corn. I liked it.

Elise Goes to Auschwitz

Sometimes on a Saturday night, my little family island is flooded by youth. And no, I’m not talking about Retro Night in my mirror-balled basement – I mean actual young people, teens and twenty-somethings. You might call it clear evidence of local warming. Or you might blame it on Tropical Storm Elise. She blew into my living room last week.

Elise is a university student, a colleague of mine when she’s not doing that, and a WOW (Woman of the World) pretty much all the time. When her college offered her a chance to go to Poland for the Walk of the Living – an international youth gathering to commemorate the Holocaust – she leaped at the chance. And we all jumped at our chance to find out about the Walk she made. And how it affected her idea of Living.

The story was intriguing right from the start. The Canadian Jewish Congress decided, on this 60th anniversary of World War II, that the trip wouldn’t be just for raising the consciousness of Jewish kids, as it had been in the past. This time, they were joined by Christians (hi, Elise!), Muslims and those of no particular faith. Interviewers asked tough pre-selection questions: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever gone through? How does tolerance show itself in the way that you live?

That didn’t prepare them for airline security – they were flying El Al, Israel’s state airline. Saying they’re careful is like observing that Michael Jackson is a little unusual. Elise was embarrassed, tired, a bit angry (“Didn’t I already answer that? Another scanner? I have to take off what?”), even when she knew the routine was for her own safety. And that the visibly Middle Eastern students were put through a wringer even tighter than the one squeezing her, fair-haired and blue-eyed as she is. Yes, she thought. This must have been how it was. A little bit like that.

And then it was a trans-Atlantic plane ride, and then it was get-off-and-get-on-the-bus to Auschwitz. The bus to Auschwitz. (Quiz: What do you do if you’re losing the war and your enemy is closing in on your concentration camp full of human skeletons whose only crime was ethnicity or lifestyle? One answer: A forced march with beatings can be effective; 56,000 human skeletons were convinced to stop living in only five days.) Auschwitz is now a museum of memory. Display case after display case of human hair. Shoes. Star of David armbands. On and on, all the artifacts of the long and horribly dead. The Genocide Show.

Elise felt terrible because she didn’t feel worse. No tears yet. Jet lag, exhaustion, and a wicked culture shock, sure, but not the tidal waves of empathy and disgust and sorrow that (she guessed) she was looking for. She wondered if something was wrong with her heart. This was Auschwitz, and she was numb. Perhaps just a little, she later thought, like the Jewish people unloaded from cattle cars at this same Polish camp more than six decades before. The same ones who’d been harassed, then restricted, then rounded up for “resettlement”. Disbelief. Shock. Numbness. They must have felt this, too. A little bit like this.

You’ll be glad to know that Elise’s heart was fine. Through the March of the Living between Auschwitz and Birkenau, where the gas chambers killed over a million Jews and thousands of other political prisoners; through visits to the Jewish ghettoes in Krakow and Warsaw; through the visits to concentration/extermination camps at Plaszow (where those that Mr. Schindler couldn’t protect ended up), and at Belzec and Majdanek (where Elise spent Mother’s Day); and, through wrenching conversations with survivors, with the “hidden children”, and with her fellow students, Elise’s mind and heart were stretched and shattered and consoled and shattered again.

For her, the calm centre of this hurricane of feeling was always Anita. Anita rode the bus with the non-Jewish kids. It turned out that she was one of the “hidden”, a Jewish girl whose family had been herded into a ghetto, who was passed secretly out of that ghetto in a burlap bag just before her parents were murdered. (She was 8 when her father dug his own grave before being shot.) She, like many, was sheltered in a Polish Catholic family and raised as a Christian. (One of the other “hidden children” grew up to be a Catholic priest who found out, many years later, that he was Jewish.) Anita’s story became the understandable, human-scale core of an incomprehensible crime.

And these were the questions that the Canadian kids from all backgrounds asked themselves: How did this get started? (Shunning, blaming; from burning books to burning the people who own them is not so big a step.) Where was humanity when all this was going on? (A better question, surely, than “Where was God?”; we don’t seem to care as much where God is when stock prices are high.) Where does hope come from amidst such industrial-strength inhumanity?

Their answers were powerful, life-changing, and ultimately hopeful. For Elise, the most pressing question was simple: What are we going to do about what we have seen? Her commitment, and that of a tightly-bonded group that had been strangers five days earlier, came from a Hebrew expression – Tikkam Olam – which means “to repair the world”. The experience made them want to take on this repair mission personally. To bear witness. To speak their truth. To move the world, just a little.

And that is why Elise was in my living room, and that is why a whole bunch of kids came to hear her. The world feels a little less ragged after a night like that, though my heart was a bit frayed.