Canadian Short Stories by John Hartig
I hope you enjoyed the short story about Leonardo and Michelangelo at the Pearly Gates. Here are four more short stories which, I hope, will make you think. Unless you already know the meaning of life. That's a hard one. The answer to the universe though is easy. It's 42. So while you figure that one out, have another cuppa, sit back, relax and read the following short stories.
- Page 2: Harry Rittenhouse: My step-mother's dad lived until the age of 103. He was still sharp as a tack with a great sense of humor. Probably making the angels laugh up there in heaven.
- Mom Passed Away: Rosa Hartig died at the age of 92 on January 14, 2012. She came from present-day Serbia and could speak 5 languages..
- Wilma de Jager: Wilma and Jan de Jager were an older Dutch couple who lived right across the street from us in Vineland, Ontario. I took care of their cat when they went on holidays. Wilma died in 2014 of complications from brain tumor surgery.
- Time Portal: My diary comments from 2011 on current events and heavens knows what else.
Coffee With Harry
Judy and Harry Rittenhouse
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, first publ. 1623)
The beginning of December is a drab month for seniors because there's not much to look out at from their windows at the United Mennonite Seniors' Home in Vineland. It looks cold out there. I made a bee-line this morning to Tim Horton's and bought a chunky chocolate chip cookie and regular medium coffee for Harry Rittenhouse. I ordered a French Vanilla and a cheese croissant for myself. Harry was in his usual pose, snoozing in his easy chair, head down on his chest. The minute I woke him, his eyes focused and his mouth gaped open with mock surprise. Judy had given me a gift card so I could get her dad something from Timmy's, while she and Wally (Marjorie's dad) were off on a cruise in the southern Caribbean. My chore was to visit Harry a couple of times a week to see how he was doing, so Judy wouldn't have to worry. Harry is 102.
Harry worked for many years at Vineland Growers in Jordan. In old pictures, he sported a good set of bicepts and had the physique of somebody who was used to working physically. Big wrists, strong hands. He loved hunting and fishing.
It was only last year that he had to give up his walker. He has to be pushed to the dining room now in a wheelchair. He wears Depends and has "to be toileted" by the nurses. The past year has been more than embarrassing for Harry; it’s been extremely traumatic because he can't walk anymore and his memory is shot. Harry has a witty and dry sense of humour which still pops out now and again despite his short-term memory loss. He's quite philosophical about things: "There's nothin' much you can do about it!" It usually takes Harry half the visit to remember my name, but at last, he does. We go through a ritual.
"Hi Harry. You keepin' out of trouble?"
"Not if I can help it."
I hand him his coffee and cookie. "Who's payin' for it?"
"Judy. She told me to take care of you while she was gone."
A young nurse comes in with a hot chocolate. She sees the coffee and decides to leave the hot chocolate for later.
"They take good care of me here," says Harry, "If it was any better, it'd be a nuisance."
He laughs at his own joke. He remembers now that Wally and Judy went to the Caribbean for two weeks. “I don’t like travelling myself,” he says.
"Can’t be bothered with it."
He's been all over Ontario, hunting and fishing, and that's enough for him.
"Up northwest, around Essex County, and way above Muskoka."
He used to take his dog Bing with him on these excursions. "The best dog I ever had."
He looks at two photos of himself on the window sill. One at the age of 33 with Bing. Harry's sleeves are rolled up showing the nice biceps he had as a young man. Then there's the photo of himself with glasses when he hit his 100th birthday. I tell him, that he doesn't look a year older than 99. He chuckles.
Whenever Harry starts feeling down because he can't remember things, I change the subject and that usually works. He takes his situation in stride. "What day is it?"
"Tuesday," I say.
"Well, it don't matter anyhow," he says. "It's all the same to me."
"I'm anchored here," he grumbles. "Life sometimes hands you stuff you don’t got no choice in."
But the old spark still occasionally surfaces and Harry has a certain twist of phrase or a pithy comment that's just a treasure. I remember asking him one time:
"How're you feelin' Harry?"
To which he replied without blinking an eyelash: "Ain't got no toe-tag on me yet!"
He considers himself lucky because the nurses there are pretty good. "I don't need much," he says.
I point to him, "You got warm booties on, you’re wearin’ a sweater and got a cookie in your hand. What more can you ask for?" He finds that funny.
I bid my goodbye and tell him that I'll drop in again on Thursday. I enjoy my visits with Harry, despite his occasional drifting off into a regret about his memory. The easy going man that he once was always come out in some way or other and he throws out little phrases that are pure, pure gems.
I remember when the Rittenhouses, Harry and Gert, sold their old house on Victoria Avenue some years ago and auctioned everything off because it was time to make the move into the seniors' home.
They had a little apartment unit together there at the United Mennonite Home and seemed to enjoy it. Then Gert had a bad fall giving her serious head trauma. She started showing signs of dementia after that and started mixing things up. She had to be moved to one of the rooms on the opposite wing of the home without Harry.
Gert had mood swings. Harry made it a point to visit her every day and he'd shuffle down the corridor each morning with his walker to her room. It's strange how you get separated by old age and health. You're a married couple living together for so many years and then you end up in separate rooms in the seniors' home like you're strangers. Gert, died several years ago. I think she was 95.
"The best wife in the whole wide world," says Harry.
I wouldn't mind aging, if it wasn't for the pain.
I used this line with Harry once: "You know, things would be a whole lot better if we didn't have these problems." That elicited a chuckle from him.
"You got that right!"
Before I turned to go, Harry started nibbling on his Timmy's cookie. It crunched.
"You still got your own teeth, Harry? I asked him.
"Yeah," he said, "but this thing is as hard as pineboard!" To make his point, he rapped the cookie on his tray with a solid thud.
"Yep," he said with conviction, "as hard as pineboard!" And he nibbled some more on his cookie. He burped, and said, "That tasted good twice. The first time and the last time." I chuckled and closed the door.
I left Harry's room and walked down the hallway into the sitting area on the second floor to catch the elevator there. The 42" TV screen was on but nobody was watching it. A lady sat asleep in her wheelchair with her head drooping on her chest and her mouth wide open.
I got a birthday card recently [for not being near Harry’s age]. “You know you’re getting older when ‘Everything hurts and what doesn’t hurt, doesn’t work’.”
What can I say about getting old? W.C. Field's little quip on his gravestone reads: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
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Mom Passed Away
Monday, January 16, 2012
@ 10:00 a.m.
By Her Son, John Hartig
Another chapter of my life is closed. My mother is dead. Mom died just shortly before 1:00 p.m. at the Trinity Home in Kitchener, just two days ago. I've been meaning to write something because that's how I usually "let things out." These are my Monday morning ramblings, my Monday morning blues...in words.
My brother, George, phoned on Saturday at 1 p.m. to tell me the news that "Mom passed away." She was 92. I had no tears, maybe that would come later at the Funeral Home on Tuesday evening or at the church on Wednesday morning. I just felt a gentle sadness.
At about 6 p.m. on Saturday, I thought, it's been 4 hours now. Mom was still alive today. I didn't want to roll back time; I wouldn't want to freeze time at a quarter to 1 to prolong the tiny life she still had at that point. Mom was skin and bone. She had not spoken for over a year. She refused to eat anything in the last month. I wouldn't want her to continue in such a state just to have her keep breathing. I don't think she'd want that for herself; I know I wouldn't.
I remembered mom, 3 years ago, at my sister Renate's 60th birthday party celebrated at the Concordia Club in Kitchener. She was up and dancing with Nick.and of all things, she was whistling to the music as they danced. Mom loved whistling. She still recognized us then. Well, that all disappeared a year ago. My brother, George, said she drifted in and out of awareness and often didn't recognize him, even though he and his wife, Shelley, visited regularly every week.
I was so glad that I drove to Kitchener a couple of days before mom passed away, on Wednesday. I stayed all morning and most of the afternoon. The weather was unseasonably warm, at about 5 degrees, no snow! Can you believe it? January 11! Everything was green. Lovely drive to Kitchener. The noise of the trucks on the highway was still buzzing through my head when I walked to my sister's room at the Trinity Home. My sister is in the same Home as my mom because she's handicapped with Multiple Sclerosis. The law of the universe did not hand her a blessing. We're all dealt something, I guess, at different times.
In a way, it was a blessing that I made it to Kitchener on Wednesday and not Friday. On Friday, it snowed, dangerous road conditions. Also the doctor had given mom a needle to sedate her, so she would not feel any pain through her last hours.
I didn't feel guilty that I brought my Star Trek novel, The Better Man, and read while I sat with mom on Wednesday morning. I broke off the reading to look out the window from mom's third floor room at the shriveled plants in the garden below. The sun would occasionally peep through the clouds. I spoke to mom intermittently: "The sun is shining outside the window, mom. I'm glad I visited you today. It's Wednesday morning. Everything still looks green. I'm glad you're my mother. I just had a lovely visit with Renate downstairs. Nick is here. George is going to visit on Saturday or Sunday with Shelley." Of course, all that was said in simple German.
Mom was born in Banat, now a part of Serbia. She was a Danube Schwabian [née Ginter], of Germanic descent, outside of Germany. She spoke 5 languages, which probably got her out of tight spots during World War II. She was separated from her Yugoslavian husband during the war and everyone thought he was dead. Mom fled to Austria as a refugee where she met my own father, Michael Hartig, who in turn was a Saxon fleeing Romania and the Communists. I was born in Austria. My half sister, Nellie [née Isailowitsch], from mom's first husband had the dark and beautiful features of the Slavic race. I loved my big sister dearly.
I kept reading my Star Trek novel and occasionally told mom about the weather or about the old family photos hung on the walls around her little room. The nurse brought in a glass of cranberry juice. I've always found the staff at the Trinity Home very caring and thoughtful. It can't be an easy job. The nurse let me put the straw in mom's mouth. Mom took forever to suck the juice up. It moved up the straw, then fell down again, up the straw and down. Finally, there was enough suction to get the juice into her mouth. Success in little things! By the time she was through, the glass was mostly empty and the nurse was pleased. They record these things.
I had a bowl of soup downstairs in the tiny cafeteria, which was also the entrance to the home and the foyer. I sat down by the pastor. I visited Reni once more and told her I'd go up to mom's room and probably stay until about 2:30 p.m. so I could get on the highway before the huge onslaught of traffic would hit the roads.
Mom opened her eyes twice during this visit. Once in the morning when I talked "at her" and once in the afternoon. Her left eye was clear and it glowed with recognition. Her right eye was blind due to macular degenation. She said no word but I know she recognized me during those two times when she opened her eyes.
Well, it's a chapter closed now in our family history. How glad I was that I had visited mom last Wednesday and that I told her I was glad she was my mother.
"Ich bin froh dass du meine Mutter bist."
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Wilma de Jager
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014
They were neighbours for some 10 years, Jan and Wilma De Jager, a Dutch couple in their late 70s living in the house right across the street from us in Vineland. I'd heard that Wilma was in the Shaver Hospital, going downhill fast. I'd only found that out yesterday evening at the Loaf of Bread supper, so today would be my “mitzvah”, my good deed, as my Jewish neighbours down the street would say.
I used to cat-sit for Wilma and Jan whenever they took a notion to hop in their car and drive through Tennessee or Florida. Jan had the wanderlust and he loved to drive somewhere, anywhere every year. They would also book a yearly flight to visit relatives in Holland. Jan sported a personal license plate, Huzum, the name of his home town in the old country. Their accents were Dutch, as thick as molasses, despite all these years in Canada. Every year, Jan showed me where the cat food was inside the foyer, so his chunky pet would not starve. [Man, that cat was heavy!] It meowed incessantly whenever it heard me open the door and rattle with the scoop inside her food bag. The cat reminded me of Wilma, solid and chunky and rolly-polly. Jan was a stick of a man with a concave stomach. I joked about him being underfed. He laughed, padding his thin tummy, “Not enough doughnuts, eh!” He and Wilma liked going to McDonalds because the seniors got a discount there on muffins and coffee. Jan claimed, McDonald coffee was tastier than Tim Horton's. Whenever they came back from holidays, they took me there as a treat, for watching their house and their cat.
Last autumn, they put a for sale sign up in front of their house. It was gone in no time. Before they moved, Wilma was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Everything seemed to come at once. The house was sold; Wilma had brain surgery. The relatives helped them move. A young couple replaced them. I hardly see the new young couple who pretty much keep to themselves. Jan and Wilma left no forwarding address. I often wondered how they were doing. Then the news came sort of off-the-cuff from another Dutch couple at the Loaf of Bread supper, “You knew Jan and Wilma? Did you know that...?” So, I earmarked Wednesday for my dropping in at the Shaver Hospital, thinking I'd squeeze a brief visit in before the puck was dropped at noon in the Olympics in the game between Canada and Latvia.
Wednesday morning was such a sunny day, a clear blue sky day, a good day for a quick hospital visit. I put a Toonie in the parking meter for a one hour stay. I shouldn't be more than that. The receptionist pointed to the elevator and said, “Second floor, room 219.” The door was ajar. Crowded room. Sons and daughters were gathered around her bed. I spotted Jan's gray hair. He was bent low, sitting next to the bed, holding her hand. Wilma's breath was heavy; she was rattling. Two of the sons spotted me just outside the door. I motioned for them to come out. They were teary-eyed. “I would be interrupting, wouldn't I?” I asked. “Yes,” they said. “Later, tell Jan that John Hartig, his neighbour was here.” “Yes, we remember you.” “Thanks,” I said and left. What a time to visit! I didn't know it was that bad. I headed to the car in the sunshine. I had 45 minutes left on the ticket and gave it to the guy who had just parked next to me. He'd been fumbling for change and placed his Bible on the hood of his car. He thanked me and put the ticket inside his dashboard. A young fellow. I wondered with whom he intended to pray. Maybe it was Wilma; maybe it was her pastor? I didn't pursue a conversation. What was my intention that morning? To ask Wilma if I could make a McDonald's muffin and coffee run? Chit-chat about the weather; about the hockey game?
I drove back down the hill at Brock University and noticed the cluster of students hovering around the bus stop heading up to classes. They all had their futures ahead of them, whatever that would be. I got home just in time for lunch and the start of the first period in the hockey game between Canada and Latvia. Canada won the game 2-1, not an easy win in the third period. Later that afternoon, it rained. And later that evening, after supper, Jan and Wilma's son phoned:
“Wilma passed away this afternoon. We thought we'd phone you because you made the effort to come out.”
“I'm sorry,” I said.
“It was quick,” he said. “Funeral arrangements have not been made yet.” He'd let me know. We said goodbye.
I thought I'd sit down and write something about this sunny and this rainy day.
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Diary 2011 or Thereabouts
Let the children have a world
Where there is no pain or sorrow
Where they all can live tomorrow
And they share a brighter day
(Dana Winner Song 2009)
Checking The Latest News Makers
Meanwhile, the big interplay between microcosm and macrocosm keeps spinning round and round in the world, as it always has. Destiny and fate seem to look down over everything. The Wheel of Fortune is spinning without stop in people's lives! Maria Aragon, the 10 year-old phenomenon who had 12 million hits (so far) on her U-tube rendition of Lady Gaga's song, Born This Way, made a guest appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, yesterday. This is just the start of something big for her. On today's show (my birthday Feb. 23rd), Justin Bieber presented Ellen with a lock of his hair so she could auction it off for charity, proceeds going to The Gentle Barn, animal organization. Magazines at the check-out counter in grocery stores have Justin Bieber's face all over the place. He's come such a long way since his first U-tube video that launched him on to the road to fame and fortune. Meanwhile, The National Enquirer, on the other hand, suggests in its headline, it's apparently "The End", for the elderly movie diva, Elizabeth Taylor. There's start-ups and break-ups and "finales" in all these lives. Stories just keep on going and going, replaced by new ones!
Elizabeth Taylor has been married 8 times. I certainly hope there is only one marriage for Prince William and Kate Middleton who are scheduled to tie the knot on April 29, 2011. There have been enough divorces in the royal family. Apparently Fergie is not invited. Experts say that now is the time to update the laws governing royal succession which are some 300 years old. Prince William has said his fiancee Kate Middleton is under no pressure to follow in his mother's footsteps and will "make her own destiny".
Time Will Take Care Of Everything
In other news, I'm glad that the police have charged that homeless man (caught in a nearby barn) for the murder of my friend, Audrey Gleave over Christmas 2010. It's also reported that Toronto is planning to name a street after Ryan Russell, the police officer killed by another homeless man who drove Russell down with a stolen snow plough, earlier this winter. Congress woman, Gabrielle Giffords, is recovering steadily after being shot in the head in that Tucson massacre. The killer remains in jail, awaiting justice. Who knows how many months all these accused killers will gobble up in the courts at the expense of taxpayers' money? The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt finally resigned and one would hope that those countries will get free elections and amended constitutions this year. Libya is still in an upheaval this very day, with demonstrators killed in the streets by Gadhafi military forces. Will there be any real change with the change of power, if there is a change of power?
I saw a splendid documentary recently, about a naturalist living Alone In The Wilderness in Alaska. Dick Proenneke refurbished a log cabin and lived in the woods for 30 years until he was 82. He filmed his life in the sticks, showing great footage of his survival in -40 degree temperatures in winter and how he trapped wild game. I told Marjorie, "Gadhafi should have built a log cabin and lived out there, instead of killing his own people in Libya."
My hip is still sore from the spill I took on my recent skiing trip with "the boys." The canker on my tongue is still bothering me. My leukemia is slow in its progress, thank goodness, creeping up slowly from a reading of 11.9 in 2003 to 14.9 in 2011. If my math is right (and if a bus doesn't hit me), I have another 7 years to live before I need treatment and who knows, I might go into remission with some bonus years to come? I'm praying that I have some more time to watch the world's dramas unfold. In the meantime, we all still miss Kenny so very much! He's been gone 3 years now. Anwar Knight, "the weather weenie", is still looking good on TV, with no apparent side effects from his cancer treatment over the past year.
I can't follow all these stories to their end because, well, other stories keep popping up all over the place and so on and so forth, so that nothing really ends, does it? But with the few stories that I've been following in my "time portal", stories which seem unfinished, time will finish them all for me. Time will take care of everything.
Percy Bysshe Shelley pictures time as an ocean in an old poem, appropriately entitled "Time". The ocean is made up of human tears, shed because people have suffered and had to endure so much through their life times. The ocean of time gobbles all of us up. Ironically, Shelley drowned in a boating accident in 1822:
Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
(Percy Bysshe Shelley - "Time")
Famous Last Words
I thought about famous last words again. What would mine be, if I lay dying? There have been some really flippant and strange ones from famous people:
"Am I dying or is this my birthday?"
(When she woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family around her bedside)
~~ Lady Nancy Astor, d. 1964
What would I say in my final minute? It depends on whether I'd be in a coma or in pain or just plain drugged. Maybe whimsical, from the game show: "Is this your final answer?" Or more aptly, personal: "I love you Marjorie." When I was in the West Lincoln Hospital from a bleeding stomach and I actually felt like I might die, I prayed I would last long enough to tell the night nurse: "Tell Marjorie that I love her."
Bonaparte's dying word was, "Josephine." There's lots of possibilities, all fascinating. What would you say, if you had only one sentence left to give family, friends or the world? Maybe, nothing? I've heard a story about Alexander the Great who was asked by his generals in his dying hour, to which of them would he leave his empire? I think he said, "the strongest." I'm not sure if that caused mighty wars that ripped the empire apart. What would Alexander the Great care at the point of death anyway?
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