“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
The words of that famous blogger… What was his name?… Ah yes, William Shakespeare.
This was also the closing line of a letter written by my father more than 11 years ago. Long before Cancer became a household name at Chez Combden.
Dad didn’t live by the sword but taught by it for 30 years, swinging a blunt wooden blade around the classroom as he brought Hamlet and MacBeth to life for young, adolescent minds. He quoted the bard more than you can shake a sword at, so it’s no surprise he did so in this letter. But oh, the bittersweet irony of it all…
Mom was leaving to go to Edmonton to visit my brother Glenn, his wife Peggy, and their brand new bundle of blue. Dad wasn’t going, but in mom’s carry-on he sent along a piece of himself: a five-page letter. Not a letter for Glenn or Peggy. A letter for Jack. His first grandchild – a boy – the wee one who would carry on the rare Combden name and the red-hot Barr’d Islands blood.
I didn’t know about the letter until Glenn read it at the funeral home, just a couple days after dad’s death on January 21st, 2010. Two years ago today.
Penned nearly a decade earlier, some of the words were hauntingly prophetic.
October 5th, 2000
Dear Grandson Jack Alexander:
This letter, the first of your life, will come as a complete surprise to you; your mom and dad might be surprised too. You may not pay much attention when your mom reads this to you. You may not understand every word; your language is unique. You will be too busy turning over, sleeping, dreaming of a future not yet defined.
When you are old enough, dad and mom will explain why this message came so early in life. They might attribute the writing to your Grandfather Combden’s multi-dimensional personality or a touch of insanity which has no explanation. Pick your choice, Jack.
I’m extremely elated you are a boy with potential to carry on the Combden name. If you were a girl, I’d be just as joyous. Your two grandmothers might be a tiny bit envious, but your two grandfathers smile with enormous delight and look forward to when you will battle your brother for your father’s golf clubs, car, hockey stick and CDs; we’d roll with laughter if your sister marked the wall with mom’s lipstick, blew powder around the bathroom, flushed a toothbrush, or poured shampoo into the tub. Of course, you can do these things in a year or so. A good grandson is a mischievous grandson.
Right now, it’s your world, Jack. Your show, your stage. You should learn Shakespeare early. “All the world’s a stage.” First lesson.
I heard and saw your first “stage,” with all the gifts. You were not very interested. Your father was hyper. (Just a joke.) Is it true you have red hair, stand 20” tall without socks, and weighed nearly 9 pounds? What a boy! What a grandson! It won’t be long before you are taller than your father, well above your mother. (ha)
Is it true you are drinking your mother’s milk? That’s a good idea. This high quality milk is always the right temperature, costs nothing, the cat can’t get at it, it comes in cute containers, and the supply never dries up. Unlike oil wells.
Before I continue, I want to tell you a little about your grandfather. I’m retired from teaching, still conducts the occasional service, picks berries in season, writes poetry, keeps a journal, and plays golf. Your father has yet to defeat your grandfather (ha.) Also, I’m an active Lion, helps citizens with EI and pension problems. I am considered a philosopher, thinker, walker, rabbit hunter and actor. I get a quarter of moose each year. I have a bottle for you, when your teeth arrive; you’ll like moose. Grandma bottles good moose. P.S. I am probably the most sensible of your relatives, although it might take you a few years to come to a full appreciation of Pop Combden.
Time goes so fast, Jack, my son. Before school is out, you’ll be walking, poking fingers into everything, pulling papers, books, ornaments off tables and low shelves. Watch the steps to the basement; tell dad to put a gate at the top.
Dad told me you attended an Oilers game. You probably slept through the game. I guess the game put half the patrons to sleep.
You’ll be making your first trip to NFLD at Christmas. How nice! I’m waiting to hold you, bounce you, roll, tickle and wrestle. What fun! I will have to be very careful, because your grandfather dropped your dad when he was your age, (I think), but no ill effects were recorded. Did you notice? (ha)
I heard the North Pole is melting. Santa might have to travel by canoe or bike. But Jack Alexander, he always comes, and this year he has extra toys. Someday, he’ll bring you golf clubs, bike, girlfriend, and other things. A sister? But no gift will be greater than yourself, and it is not even Christmas.
Your grandmother Combden will be delivering this letter. Special delivery, Jack. Next fall, Pop will be up. We will go for a short walk, watch the geese flying over, take some pictures, look at picture books (no women), play peek-a-boo, hide and seek, play with your toys. Pop loves toys. I’ll bring a special toy for you, plus my own toys.
You’re getting sleepy now, so I’ll bring this to an end. Pop feels sleepy himself. Must be that Grandfather Feeling.
Keep growing, rolling, turning, drinking, shouting, sleeping. Pop is aware of your mom’s hibernation policy when on holidays (ha). But little Jack can sleep as long as he wishes, and if anyone wakes you up, Pop will throw snowballs at them.
Love and kisses from your Pop Combden
P.S. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” – Romeo and Juliet. Second lesson. Goodnight, Jack.
I shake off that feeling of beautiful sadness and appreciate this letter for what it is: a paper portal into how wonderfully, unforgettably crazy he was. When the memory of him starts to fade — the inevitable desaturation of time — we need only reach for this letter and there he is, his voice plain as day in that beloved scrappy handwriting. As writer Chuck Palahniuk says, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” Mission accomplished, dear old dad. Immortality is yours. And I’m not just talking about this letter.
I sit here among heaps of poetry and prose and sermons written on everything from cue cards and stationary to notebooks and discarded envelopes. A chronological rainbow of paper – from yellowed typewriter onion-skin to sheets of lily white. It took me these last two years just to organize it all. (Coming this spring: Sonnets & Scribblers: The Poetry of Jim Combden.)
And here’s his book. Fogo Island Boy was published in 2009, just six months before his own final chapter was through. I remember him pecking madly away at the computer, determined to finish his story, knowing his diagnosis, hopeful for a cure but taking no chances.
He did it, and he basked in the glory of his realized dream – a book launch at Chapters, a couple sweet paychecks, and some considerable bragging that warranted a few loving eyerolls.
Then kaboom – The End. No more books would be written. No more silly poems. No more letters to future grandsons. A sobering reminder to make your dreams come true before you stop waking up from them.
But it’s the strangest thing for me – to see Fogo Island Boy on the shelf at local bookstores. The book he wrote, but no dad to high five. That’s my dad’s book! My dad – he’s the Fogo Island Boy! I want to shout it out to people all around me, maybe hug someone. He did it! He really did it! I pull the book out from the shelf and reposition it with its cover facing out, smile skyward and walk away, content. His book is still here. That means he is still here.
“The more we write, the less we die.” – Brian Kessler
Dad’s words, nestled inside an ocean-blue cover, are sitting on my coffee table. I reckon that’s the next best thing to the man himself sitting on my couch. I needn’t go farther than my own living room to hear his voice.
The day after he died, Ted Blades of CBC Radio’s On The Go aired a tribute to “Jim Combden from Badger’s Quay” who so often called in to the radio program with thoughtful and intelligent comments on the political happenings of the day. The way he spoke, the words he chose; he was like an “Old Testament Prophet,” Blades said. Dad was always fighting for what he thought was right and just. Always standing up for the little guy – rural Newfoundland. He always had something to say. And he said it fearlessly and well. (Occasionally, it got him in hot water. At a Liberal rally, he called Danny Williams a “fuehrer.” The remark made headlines and even inspired a skit on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.)
“A voice has been stilled,” Blades began. Then, he preempted a reel of dad’s comments with a statement that hits me smack dab in the heart every time: “The voice we’d come to love, and one of the calls that made On The Go richer by their very presence…” Hear full podcast here.
A voice has indeed been stilled. There will be no more new words. But what has already been said — and that’s a heck of a lot — is immortal: in his book, in his poetry, in his radio commentaries. His unique voice is forever captured, like a firefly in a jar, quietly shining its light in the darkness.