Sunday, June 16, 2013

Red and White

I want to write of strawberries.

I saw a box sitting, in the sun, on a shelf, beside broccoli. The greengrocer must have been in a rush this morning. Maybe he'd slept in. Maybe he'd had one too many. Or maybe, this morning, he was just being careless, placing pears beside the cabbage, plums by corn and leaving zucchini looking lonely set off to one side. But it was the strawberries that caught my eye. A memory came bringing along with it, for the first time, a smile.

Perhaps every Canadian has an attachment to strawberries. The hard cold winters, the long dark nights, the frozen fingertips that even mittens can't keep warm, the breaths taken carefully through a damp woollen scarf - all together might have imagined strawberries into being. A fruit that drinks the sun and turns it sweet. A fruit as red in summer as snow is white in winter. Strawberries and snow, our two primary seasons. The colours of our flag.

I remember strawberries as a child. Before they got dressed up into shortcake or baked into muffins or whirred into smoothies - just strawberries plucked warm on a summer's afternoon. My brother and I with a bowl filling and emptying at the same time as we picked row after row. What wasn't jammed in our mouth would be, in winter, jammed on toast. Strawberries.

That's what I could have remembered when I saw them today, on the greengrocers shelf sitting in the shade of a broccoli tree. But I didn't.

I thought of Ron.

I thought of the last time we spoke.

Ron is someone who I think about on both Father's Day and Mother's Day. He is someone Joe and I remember and bring to life in little jokes or little stories with little gestures. There is a lot of Ron left in our lives. He loved George and the two of them, in their own way, were famous. They were the 'first couple' of the gay community here in Toronto. I saw them, first, when I was a frightened boy, in a magazine, on a Saturday morning, hidden in my bedroom, in Campbell River. I was sixteen years old. They stood, together, proudly as a couple. They were the love that dare not speak it's name. They were present in that picture and, even then, when I looked in Ron's eyes, I saw kindness there.

I would come to know Ron's expressions well. His eyes could flash and his smile could silence. He was a complex man. He and George became friends and mentors. We ate together, we drank together, we laughed together and, of course, we cried together. Our lives, we both knew, from the instant we'd met, had been changed.

And then suddenly, Ron became very, very, sick. We visited him in the hospital, almost daily, even after he'd gone into a coma. Then one day, we walked into his room, and Ron was back. Sitting up in bed, grinning at us. It seemed as if God did hear the prayers of two young gay men. We chatted and laughed. Just before we left we asked him what he'd like us to bring the next day. He hugged himself and said, "Strawberries, bring me strawberries!"

How perfect! The winter was over and there would be strawberries.

On the way home we both cried. Ron was back. We'd hoped without expecting. We'd prayed without believing. We'd expected everything but strawberries.

The next day we shopped for a basket of the reddest, ripest, strawberries we could find. We took a couple of our fancy plates, the one's we'd never found an occasion special enough to use. It was dark when we entered the hospital doors and we rushed down to his room. He was there. But he was gone. I sat down hard in the visitor's chair. "But we brought you strawberries," I said, and then began to cry.

It wasn't long afterwards that Ron Shearer died.

It was longer still before I could look at a strawberry and not be a little angry, a little grief struck. At their fragrance I would be pulled back to the memory of Ron, on his bed, hugging himself, proclaiming that he wanted, more than anything else ... strawberries.

The memory filled me with sadness.

Until today.

Seeing the strawberries red and warm in the sun. Sitting on the shelf. Quietly whispering, "If it is as it is and we are all called to utter a final word, there may not be a better word to say, than 'strawberries.'" Ron had left us the memory of one dark miraculous night, with three friends huddled together under the soft light of a nightlight. One friend in bed, two on chairs pulled up close. A memory of chatter. A memory of his hands holding first Joe's and then mine, as he told us he loved us. A memory of a final wish - for strawberries.


Winter is over.

And now, hallelujah, summer comes.


Belinda said...

What beautiful poetic writing and a lovely way to honour your friendship with Ron and his memory.

n. said...


Unknown said...

Just beautiful! When I began reading I didn't think it could get any better than the line about strawberries, "A fruit that drinks the sun and turns it sweet." But I was wrong, so very wrong. My strawberries will taste differently I think of Ron...a soul that I met only because of your beautiful writing, Dave. Thank you.

AkMom said...

Thank you.

And Happy Father's Day to you and Joe! I only know you through your blog, but I feel you two are amazing father's to many.....A real father is someone who is a role model, is a hero, is someone to look up to.

Again, thank you.

Jayne Wales said...

Just so beautiful.

Purpletta said...

What a beautiful tribute to your friend... The most meaningful tributes seem to be those that we live... How wonderful that you are able to reflect on your friendship and the life of this person who sounds pretty extraordinary & smile... May you enjoy stawberries today & may your summer go on and on....
Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece with us & through it sharing Ron with us --

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

Poetry. This is absolute poetry, Dave. I can smell the strawberries, feel his hands, taste your grief, see your smile.


Shan said...

That's lovely, Dave. I'm surprised and touched that you shared it.
Hope you guys are doing well...

cb said...

Thank you for sharing Dave. It is very similar to what Carl and I experienced (in a different way) with his mom as she was passing with cancer. She loved strawberries. She grew them in her garden on the farm. and raspberries too! She told the doctors not to tell us how serious her diagnosis was as she wanted us to have hope (when there was none). We brought her strawberries, we tried to help her eat them. She said it was a different battle this time (second fight with cancer). Well, I understand it know but it still evokes great sadness in me. Strawberries, who would have thought.
Here's to your healing :)