Coast to Coast: Grief along the St. Lawrence

Alden Wallace Mackay // Contributor

In July, I was living on a strawberry farm in Trois-Pistoles, Quebec, where I’d signed up for a French language program. Actually, I didn’t have any desire to learn French. All I read on the website was “$300. Five weeks. Meals and accommodation included.” And that sounded like a pretty cheap side-venture to me. The town had a population of 3,000. Hundreds of English speaking students occupied the streets like troops in war time. The only high school in town had been converted to accommodate us.

I met a young woman here who I’ll call Sarah. She had wheatfield hair and long legs always on display. Eyes like Medusa. We used to go down to the beach to speak English and watch the sun set. One night she said to me, “When are you going to take me to your strawberry farm?”

Every day at Trois-Pistoles felt like a movie.

About a week after I’d arrived I got a call from my father. It was lunch break and I was in the parking lot. Newfound friends were waiting for me.

“Buddy?” he said. “Bud… Papa’s gone.”


I could hear music in the distance, feel salt winds off the river. Someone called my name. “I’m sorry, bud. I wanted to tell you before you heard it elsewhere. He’s gone.”

Growing up, my grandfather was the man. We spent countless days together frying sausages on the barbecue and making things out of wood in his workshop—birdhouses and boxes and bookshelves. He’d tell me stories about his career as an engineer which took him around the world, and about all he’d learned from life. We used to philosophize together.

“Where are all the good people hiding, Aldie?”

“I don’t know, Papa.”

In the end it was cancer.

That Friday after school I drove to Quebec City, parked at the airport and flew home to Vancouver. The funeral was on Saturday. I was the pallbearer. I carried his body into the hearse, watched it drive off into forever. That night the family had dinner in his backyard. People asked me how my road trip was going. I said it was fine, didn’t eat much, and the next day I flew back to Quebec. I hadn’t told anyone at school where I’d gone for the weekend.

Later that week, eating poutine with Sarah, I was thinking about my grandfather. The weekend had gone by quick, and I hadn’t registered it all yet. I hadn’t even really registered that he was dead. Sarah asked me if everything was okay. I nodded.

“How was your weekend?” she said. “I didn’t hear from you.”

“It was alright.”

“Are you going to Chez Boogie tonight?”

Chez Boogie was the only bar in town. On any given day of the week there was a crowd of anglophones there. “I don’t know.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?”

I was late meeting her that night. She was sitting with two of her friends, and when I fell into the booth she held my hand. She was already drunk. A glaze over her eyes. A shine to her lips. 

“I’m drinking a Pornstar,” she said. The drink was neon-blue.

I got a whiskey in a glass with ice and sipped from it. It tasted like gasoline. Across the bar I could see people eating their meals, and for some reason they made me very angry. They looked like animals.

“Oh my God,” said the girls at the turn of a song. And they started singing, the veins in their necks like bridge cables. I could feel the heat coming off Sarah, and I had visions of her body. Of our bodies. I could feel my heartbeat in my skull, right next to a bassline. Ordinarily, I would’ve felt ten feet tall.

“I forgot something in the car,” I said, and I got up, went outside, and drove back to the farm. I went in through the back door, ducked past a conversation in the kitchen and crept up the old stairs to my room where I wept like a child. It all hit me at once, those feelings of which language is too useless to describe. I wept until I fell asleep. I could write you a thousand metaphors for that pain, but none would be true.

The weeks dragged on in Quebec, and I mostly kept to myself. I wish I could say that I was able to find solace or community. I wish I could look back and see a version of me who was able to act as if tomorrow didn’t exist, seizing every opportunity that life offered. And life had offered many. But I was in a funk, a sunken place, wondering what the hell I was doing with my life.

It would’ve been nice to enjoy some intimacy with Sarah while I could. Before we’d part ways. Before she’d go the way of all else in life. But my hurt was deep, and I spent many evenings alone, looking at old photos of me and my grandfather on my phone, asking my cousins to send more. Eventually Sarah stopped asking me what was wrong.  

Six months before he died, my grandfather had his colon removed in an effort to combat the cancer. He spent about a week in the hospital post-op and I went to see him every day. We held hands and chatted for as long as he was able to. Even then, so near to the inescapable end, he was still able to smile.

“How do you do it, Papa? How do you stay so positive?”

“Well,” he said. “Whenever I’m feeling down I just close my eyes and go to my happy place. And then everything’s alright again.”

His happy place. I wonder what that looked like to him. What does it look like to me? I was far from home and I had much travelling left to do, but I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was. I’m not about to start philosophizing about an afterlife, but in the end all that we have are our beliefs, no matter how unlikely they might be. Perhaps we’ll never know if our beliefs about death are true, but if all walks in life are influenced by the end then maybe we ought to start building a better relationship with it. 

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