Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Good Dog is Lost

Ron Hynes: A good voice is lost.
Lately Michael and I have been listening to a great album by a wonderful songwriter/singer named Ron Hynes. Hynes lives in a dying part of the world, St. John’s, Newfoundland, a remote city on a far-flung province north of Nova Scotia, Canada. He is being treated for throat cancer, the curse of too many cigarettes, drinks, drugs and lost nights. The cancer will take away his voice before it takes away his breath, which makes it all the more tragic. Ron’s voice is his fortune and his fame, the vehicle for the stark poetry of his songs.  This is a beautiful voice to silence! This is a gentle soul to subject to the torments of terrible illness. And finally, this is an awful way to get laid off.
    I was born in Nova Scotia, another place where the ability to make a living isn't easy. The scenery is lovely; the air is clear. Jobs are scarce. That’s why there are no traffic jams or long lines for anything. There are artists, with the ability to live on nothing. There is music everywhere, fiddlers, singers and crowds to appreciate them. But sooner or later, most people become entangled in the messy truths of life: the babies, the bills, the day after this one. That’s the kind of guy I think Ron Hynes is. That’s the kind of guy I think my father was.
My father Donald. I love him . . . I think.
    There is a belief that in the moment you die your life flashes before you, every twist and turn, at the speed of lightning. And if that is true I wonder if my father, who died in an uranium mine disaster, reviewed his life in that breath, and recognized regret. My father and eleven other young men far from home, in a Quebec mine, working for paychecks to send home to their loved ones back in remote places in Nova Scotia like Cape Breton Island, perished when a scaffold collapsed. They died instantly, we're told.  On that day my grandmother heard on the radio news of miners dying in Quebec she told her family that she knew for sure her son was one of the dead. She felt it, she told them. And she was right.
     I wonder what my father saw in that final flash? Did he see me, his first-born child, suffering under the rough hand of a stepfather who resented my existence? Did he see a baby boy still asleep in the womb of his mother, my father’s wife, who would grow up to be his namesake, my brother Donald? Did he see his sweet wife, she with the strict father who forbade her to be alone with my father till their wedding night on her 18th birthday? Did he see his baby sons, Keith, the contemplative one? Or Floyd, the romantic? Did he think of how it was for my mother when he told her he regretted her unfortunate pregnancy but that he was bound to marry his intended, the virginal one who waited in her father’s house. Did he forsee those three boys growing up fatherless and poor, and the girl, who was me, growing up in America with another stepfather, and a pained heart, piecing together in a thousand ways, on a thousand days, the puzzle of her life? Could he have imagined my mother, living in New York, married to an Italian, reading the news of his death in a breezy letter from home, written by someone unaware of my parents' secrets?
Aunt Marge, left.  Bertha, my father's widow, right.
    I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I know that Ron Hynes understands the part of me that remains a thick scar on my heart. He put the same scar on the heart of his own daughter, born outside of marriage, raised by a stepfather far away from Canada and her parents' secrets.  I was four years old when my father died. I was forty when I met my Nova Scotia brothers for the first time.
    My aunt, my father’s sister, was in her 70s by the time I got around to meeting her. The years between my birth and today provide insulation and a salve on the shame of my beginnings. Our connection is familial, comfortable as if it’s always been a part of our lives. Aunt Marge tells me stories of my father, a man I never knew. He was a character, she says. My favorite story is this one. My aunt designed clothes. She was living in Montreal and my father, a merchant marine, was in town for the night. He called her to meet him for dinner. She told him she’d just washed her hair. He told her to throw a turban on her head and meet him at a restaurant. When my very glamorous aunt arrived, he told her to not utter a single word. My aunt was quickly seated, wined and dined. My father shared in the bounty. Eventually he told her that he’d convinced the owner of the restaurant that a very famous, and very shy, opera singer was arriving for dinner. She could not speak, my father told them, because she was resting her voice for an upcoming performance. And she was not to be approached by fans, because of her painful shyness. The charade worked, Aunt Marge says, and they ate and drank like royalty all night long.
Family.  Blood is thicker than water.
    My favorite Hynes song, "A Good Dog is Lost," is so full of regret, so full of pain, it feels good to listen to it time after time. It’s a refreshing sort of pain. I hear my father and so many Canadian fathers and children in that song. I hear him talking about being lost, how quickly it can happen, how wide the ripples spread from its center of one lost soul.
    Michael and I listen to Ron Hynes and imagine him alive and well, because artists live forever.  Michael loves the songs because Michael loves songwriting. But I love the songs because they remind me of my father, and of the tragedy of those destined to be born in beautiful and bleak places.

"A Good Dog is Lost" written and performed by Ron Hynes.