Rhetta and I met in 1995, when we were both students at the University of Toronto. She was a linguistics major, and I was studying engineering. Our paths crossed at Varsity Arena, where we ended up playing on the same intermural hockey team. As I got to know Rhetta better, I felt that I had surely found a true friend and foil with whom to travel on this journey of life. Five short years later I learned that we were destined to share a much different journey – a much shorter journey – as her exhaustion and headaches were found to be the result of a brain tumor. It was after the surgery that I heard the name “glioblastoma multiforme” for the first time, followed by words “this is a terminal cancer, but we’ll try to control it as long as we can”. I was numb. The internet provided cold clean facts – 14 weeks. Three months. Six months. When I did hear the prognosis I actually felt some relief – one to two years. In comparison it seemed long. In my heart I knew better.
In the end Rhetta lived for almost 23 months from the date of her initial diagnosis. Twenty-three months containing two surgeries, five weeks of radiation therapy, nearly a dozen rounds of chemotherapy, about 10 MRIs, several CT scans, steriotactic radiosurgery, and innumerable blood tests. But also many trips to the cottage, more than half a dozen trips to Nova Scotia to see her family, witnessing her first niece learn to walk and talk, living to see her second niece born, and knowing that another niece or a nephew was “on the way”, a snowboarding trip to Whistler, summer hockey, mountain biking, three completed triathlons, and many, many walks: in our neighborhood, in the peace of Mount Pleasant cemetery, and at the cottage. Twenty-three months of anger, sadness, joy, exhilaration and fulfillment.
During the last trip we took to Nova Scotia together, in May of 2002, we hiked the Cape Split trail. It is a beautiful trail through widely varying landscape to a rocky bluff jutting out into the Bay of Fundy. As we hiked back to the trailhead she stopped me: “Just promise me that you will never forget you’re alive”, she said. I will never forget that moment. It’s a harsh reality that it is only through loss that we truly realize how much we take for granted.
In July 2002 I drove to Nova Scotia once again, bringing the ashes of my sweetheart home to be buried in Berwick cemetery with her ancestors. When I returned to Ontario I decided to spend a week at my cottage. One day I was up in our wooded lot with my binoculars, watching the birds. I came across a fallen ironwood tree, which is not unusual because there are many ironwoods, and quite often there are several dead ones lying around, waiting to be picked up and thrown into the BBQ pit. I saw this one – it was very straight with few branches, which is usual for ironwoods – and I thought to myself “that is the perfect size for a walking stick”.
There really was no reason for me to fixate on making a walking stick, something I’ve never done before, out of that particular ironwood tree, other than it seemed to beg for it. So I dragged it down, and plopped it behind the cottage where the wood shed is. I left it there, and the next day my dad commented on it, saying that he was going to cut it up to use it for the BBQ that night.
I debated with myself whether to say anything about wanting it for a walking stick, or just letting him cut it up and forget about the idea. But for some reason, I felt obliged to make the stick. I felt silly about it. I even said to myself, “this is ridiculous, that tree has nothing to do with Rhetta”. But because I believe that those strong feelings we sometimes get are deeply rooted messages and ought to be heeded, I felt I should follow through with my plan. I went inside and told my dad I wanted the top part for the walking stick. I helped him cut the rest up for the BBQ, and had him stop a few inches above where I wanted to make the cut for the handle. There was a good bulb there which would make a perfect grip.
I went and got the handsaw and cut it where I wanted it. When I was finished cutting, I looked at the cut face, and honestly, there is a perfect heart shape in darker wood in the middle of the face. I swear to you, it is perfect. I have never seen anything like it. I suppose it had everything to do with Rhetta. I’ll never know. When nature smiles at you, there’s nothing you can do but feel blessed.
I finished the stick and varathaned it so it shines. I kept the top portion of the cut too, because here is the unusual thing: where my dad made the cut with the chainsaw, there is no heart shape . Clearly the message was meant for me.
One of my favorite writers is Wally Lamb. He wrote a great book called “I Know This Much is True”. In the last paragraph he cites as one of those things which he knows to be true is that “the proof of God exists in the roundness of things”. I like this statement because, though I am not a religious person and do not believe in God as a divine being, it allows a certain degree of flexibility in an interpretation of God. God may “simply” be a pattern or fluidity or interconnectedness in what often appears to be a totally chaotic world. I think that this curious occurrence is a great example of the roundness of things.
What I know for sure is, I will carry her words and my promise with me for the rest of my life, and when I carry those words and my beautiful stick, I am still walking with Rhetta.