In the south field of the farm I grew up on, sat a boulder the size of a Volvo, one with its doors open and winter travel luggage for a family of five piled around it. It was fun to climb on, and offered a decent view of possible groundhogs that needed to be dispatched. The problem was that in the process of harvesting, planting, or tilling the field, it was necessary to steer clear of the granite chunk–this Precambrian ort left oddly exposed in the middle of prime farm dirt. It was too big for any of the rock picking efforts put forth by whomever cleared the land, built the farmhouse and barn, sold it, bought it, and then sold it to us in 1966. There were piles of rocks of manageable sizes in various locations around the fifty acres, plus the house and the lower walls of the barn were made of local stone. This boulder sat unmoved, unconcerned, defiant.
Sometime in the late 70’s my big brother, a geologist, arrived with his buddy and a few sticks of dynamite with the express intention of breaking the boulder into smaller, heftable pieces. The three of us walked up into the field, talking, laughing, you know, like everything was normal; as if we didn’t want the boulder to become suspicious. “No this isn’t dynamite. Ha! What a silly idea, you silly boulder. These are sandwiches we’re leaving on you for no specific reason at all, and isn’t it a lovely day?”
I watched the two men place the dynamite on the rock. The moment they lit the fuse, I took off running back towards the farmhouse while my brother and his friend sauntered. I couldn’t believe that they were sauntering. Who would do such a thing around explosives? Isn’t there a direction in the manual that specifically says, “Never saunter. Are you out of your mind?” It was clear that they knew what they were doing, walking like they were on a pleasant hike, because we were all well out of the way when the ‘boom’ came. And what a boom. Windows shook. Neighbourhood dogs barked, “WTF” in dog language. I was amazed at just how loud the blast was, and amused to see the big rock rise up in the air, turn over and then fall again. Break, it did not. I’m not sure that it even cracked. It had, in effect, given my brother and his buddy the metamorphic finger.
The neighbours were concerned about what was going on–phones were ringing, and though there were enough sticks of dynamite for another attempt, my brother decided that a second blast on the same day might be foolish. Here we were, this peaceful family, flying the UN flag out by the pond, but then blowing shit up on a warm, summer afternoon. The pair left, headed back to their rock jobs up in the deep of Canada’s north. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a satisfied ancient snicker echoing up from the business end of that south field.
Flash ahead to August, 2007. I was deep into the arduous process of cleaning out the farmhouse and the barn. The farm had been sold; my mother, recently on her own, moving to smaller digs. The house and barn had forty years worth of accumulated junk, and not junk, to go through. Dumpsters were rented. An upstairs window was taken apart so that boxes of junk could be thrown out and then tended on a large fire. Bags of clothing and useable items were donated to the point where people running the donation businesses in town politely whispered, “Enough. Please,” so yard sales were planned and advertised.
Though most of the upstairs of the barn was designed to hold hay, there was a smaller hallway in the south-west corner, with stalls off of it that were initially meant for grain. Instead, we used the stalls to store equipment, odd bits of fencing wire, spools of bailing twine, basically whatever needed to be kept dry. One of the stalls had a shelving unit in it and had various boxes of nails, veterinary supplies, and one, lonely ‘Greb Kodiak’ boot box, Greb Kodiaks being the work boot of choice in those days. I was up in the barn with my then father-in-law, whom we called ‘Chief.’ I picked up the box, assuming that it was going to have rolled up horse bandages in it. Instead, I discovered twelve, sweaty sticks of dynamite in a plastic bag–extras from the boulder episode, left behind and forgotten by my brother. Chief looked at me. I looked at him. We both looked at the dynamite. By this time we were standing in the middle of the big, upstairs doorway through which we hauled in hay with tractors and wagons. There was a lovely view of the north fields, trees, and an orchard. The sound of the afternoon wind was gentle like the sea, and all was well except for this slightly, out-of-place box, the contents of which could have significantly changed the mood and the physical setting in a blink, and not in a good way. We noted that there were fuses in the box, but no caps, which is a bonus I suppose, the caps being the essential component to set off an explosion in normal dynamite circumstances. Chief said, “You might want to put that down.” He said it calmly, and I was fully expecting one of his famous poems, something along the lines of, “The preacher’s sermon long it went, a tail of fear and spite, He woke his flock to get them here with sticks of dynamite,” but there was nothing. I set the box down carefully, as if it was full of sleeping lethal bees, plus, you know, the dynamite.
What to do when you find yourself in such a situation? I wasn’t about to rush to the internet and find out if crumbling the contents of the dynamite sticks into your hydrangea pots was common practice in order to boost petal colour, or if it was an excellent exfoliator for sun-damaged, dull skin that needed something just so special. So, we decided that I should call the police. On my way to the phone, I wondered if I would need to make up a story in order to keep my brother from getting into trouble: “Hello, police? Yeah, well, you’re not going to believe this, but I think some traveling circus folk left dynamite in our barn, and we are so mad at them right now, and would you just come and get it out of our sight because of how upset we all are?” The thing is, I am the worst liar. Terrible. And the thought of lying to the police? Not going to happen. Plus, there was a box of dynamite sitting up in a tinder-dry barn right now, so I figured that getting it dealt with quickly was primo; I told the truth.
Not very much time passed before an OPP cruiser pulled into the driveway. Two female cops got out, and I’m sorry but that made me feel better. I greeted them and showed them the box of danger. They were businesslike, but put me at ease, at least as far as my brother being in trouble was concerned. I did, however, phone him and lay it on like he was now the focus of a man hunt, but then I laughed. Yes, I am the worst liar. The officers' focus was on how to properly dispose of the explosives without lighting up the sky, and possibly someone with it, so they put in a call to the bomb squad. “Really?” I thought. “I guess you can’t just put it in your trunk and get it the hell out of here, huh?”
The OPP bomb squad was stationed in Orillia, an hour’s drive from the farm, so we waited. We had items set out for the yard sale we were having the next day, and I gave the officers a VIP early bird look at the loot, but they declined to choose anything to take home with them. Neither of them needed another blender. Jokes about a blow-out sale were made.
The last time a police cruiser had pulled into our driveway was December 10th, 2004. It had snowed all day. I drove an hour to get there, and by the time I had arrived, it was dark and the snow was falling in boutonnière-sized flakes. The coloured lights of the cruiser parked in the driveway entrance lit up the falling snow, giving it a carnival atmosphere, contrary to the gravity of the hard truth of that day. Earlier in the evening I had received a phone call from a paramedic telling me that my father “had passed, and that I needed to come but that I should not drive. Someone should drive me.” My husband was in the city, so I grabbed keys, got in the car and drove myself. For some odd reason, I didn’t ask ‘how’ he had passed.
I remember the very music I listened to on the way; Norah Jones, and K.D. Lang–serenaded during a bizarre kind of emotional limbo until I got within five minutes of the farm. Then my heart started beating like something from a Taiko drum show. It was as if, somehow, my psyche had protected me, because if my heart had started beating that hard when I began the drive, I would not have made it.
I got out of the car and told the officer to let me through, that “I was family,” and it was then that I noticed the lights were on upstairs in the barn and knew something bad had happened. The officer was very kind, clearing the way for my car, then guarding again like a knight after I pulled in and parked. I don’t remember walking to the house, but I remember stepping into the kitchen, learning that my father had shot himself like Hemingway, in the barn, and then standing with my sister and my mother, our arms around each other, all in shock, in disbelief.
The rest of the evening was like some awkward emotional stutter step; one moment we would be weeping, and then next, the absurdity, the surrealism would take over and we would be chatting with the detective, talking about people we had in common, and then accepting graceful support by any one of the crisis team people who were there as we fell apart again. My mother’s jeans were covered in blood–she had tried to resuscitate her husband. She went upstairs, changed into clean pants, and came back down, managing to function somehow. I phoned my brother. That was hard.
The coroner came in from the barn and sat down with us in that kitchen with the warm light–the woodstove like a live thing, doing its best to ease and comfort whatever it could. The coroner was tall, and kind, and so gracious. He handed me my father’s broken glasses without my mother seeing. We went over all of my father’s medication, and I was shocked to see that he was on a powerful antidepressant. Both the coroner and I noted that there was a missed dose in the bubble pack, a no-no with this drug.
At that point in my own life, I was on an antidepressant, and in the frustration of my GP’s well-meaning but ham-fisted efforts to find the right one for me, was versed on the details of what was out there. I was angry that I didn’t know my father was on this, or any medication, but such is the way of, not only my family, but many of especially that generation, who find themselves dealing with mental illness. Nobody talks about it and that is the worst reaction–I think doctors drop the ball when they don’t include the spouse in the details of the treatment. The rest, I suppose, is up to the two of them, depending on the health of the family dynamics, but ideally, the family should band together on this. Nobody should be left to struggle on their own because mental illness doesn’t get a parade. My aunt, on my father’s side, was schizophrenic. I know that now, but it was never discussed, even after she tried to pull a Virginia Woolf in our pond. What is it with my family and tragic writers? My mother was, apparently, cleaning the oven when she went into labour with me. Poetry anyone?
The strangest part of that evening came after discussion with the detective about the gun. I had thought that all of our guns–shotguns and a 22 used only for groundhogs, raccoons, or predators near the animals–were gone, so I was puzzled. I took the detective up to my father’s study where the guns were kept, and there was the trigger lock that belonged to the evening’s weapon, sitting open on a chair, the key still in it. That took me. I imagined how much pain my father must have been experiencing in that very moment. Jesus. Jesus Christ. And all because nobody was communicating. Stupid.
Now flash ahead to when the bomb squad arrived on that August day; you would have thought that the fair was coming to town. These guys got out of their truck, spoke with me and the two officers and became kids-with-toys. They had been bored lately and were clearly thrilled to have a neato task for the afternoon. There was nobody to arrest, no bullets to dodge; it was almost as if they wanted me to call and thank my brother.
A plan of action was made, and shortly afterward, a firetruck showed up. It was a very hot day, so the firemen on the truck weren’t that thrilled to be there, but they were needed for safety. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled; “Dynamite! Who knew?” Meanwhile, a giddy, bald and totally ripped squad member–not that I noticed–got to work. He and a few of the firemen went back behind the barn, cleared an area of tall grass, dug a pit, then wet down the area. He arranged the dynamite in that pit and then, when you didn’t think things could become any more fun, the other squad member brought out a robot from the side of the bomb truck. That’s right, ‘a robot.’ I wouldn’t have been surprised if another detachment arrived then saying that “Now, we have to watch all of this from up high in this hot-air balloon, and there’s champagne and a unicorn already loaded in, all for safety reasons. Plus the debriefing will happen in Paris, for a month. Fresca?”
When the time came, we all gathered in the bomb truck and watched the monitor that let us see what the robot was seeing. I was so proud of the little guy–go ahead, you take something that moves in a certain way, and has giant lights, or cameras for eyes, and you try not to anthropomorphize it. I get life-coaching advice from my mix master, for crying out loud, or at least, “You’re going to actually leave the apartment wearing that?” The robot’s mission was to go behind the barn to the pit, on its own, and light the pile of dynamite with a flare. The hope was that the dynamite would simply burn and not explode, but the thing about dynamite–a thing made to explode–is that you can’t be sure: thus the pit, and the distance, and the firemen, and the robot. The little guy did his job like a pro. His robot mother, possibly a printer, or a bread machine, would have been proud. There was no boom. There was only a controlled fire, and a truck full of professional, but still kinda goofy kids-at-heart.
We still own a few acres at the north end of the farm. I loved parts of growing up there. I loved the fields, and the barn, the textures, the heat and the cool. I loved the animals, but there was the other reality of the place that was like a rear wheel constantly stuck and spinning. Anyone who knew our family knew that there was a dark struggle woven through our days there; an unsettling darkness that stayed, and interfered, no matter how much joy we reached for – stubborn, like that boulder. It’s not only that robot that I imagined as a character, but the house, and barn as well. I felt that they did their best to keep us safe, and watched with great sadness as the deepest, unspoken pain lead to tragedy. I imagine the barn weeping as it held my father’s body there on its great wooden floor, sheltered from the snow, frustrated that it couldn’t morph its great beams into arms in order to better cradle him. Though there are times when I wanted it gone because of what happened, I’m glad the dynamite didn’t take the barn up in cloud of fire on that afternoon. Its absence would have, I think, deepened the wound our family now carries.
Every now and then, I go to the field, sometimes camping overnight, wandering along the stream and in the forest I used to play in as a kid. Often I stop and look over at the barn, and the two of us bow our heads and sigh.