The story below is something I wrote for a journalism class a long time ago. We were supposed to write a “personal story.” I’m not sure why I settled on this one. I was tempted, in posting it for the first time, to edit it. Revisiting old writing is like hearing your voice on tape. But either laziness or respect for the person it is about made me decide to keep it as it was.
It’s funny, looking back on this story, to realize that I wrote it when I was 18, just at the point where I was beginning to see the adults in my life as real people. I make a lot of assumptions about Doug and his life here that might not have been true. All of the people we think we know are, to greater and lesser degrees, constructs of our own minds. What we think we know about them is all we ever have, and this is never more true than after they are gone.
My grandmother’s house is well known to the people of Chance Harbour. It is very much her house now, but it was not always so. For many years my grandfather Jules Robichaud ran a small mill there. Later, with the years catching up to him, he cut only slats for lobster traps. But there was always Jules’ mill. His son and my uncle, Doug Robichaud, would follow his father’s footsteps, building his mill on the same property. Doug’s mill and Jules’ mill were landmarks of a kind. During my childhood, they were fixtures. To go to the house in Chance Harbour was to see either Doug or my grandfather hard at work. It was hard work, but they loved it. That is said often about people who do work others find gruelling. In this case it was all too true, and it would take a death to show me how true.
I began working for Doug in the summer of Grade 7. It was a few years after my discovery of video games and one year before my discovery of sports. I suppose pudgy would be the word to describe my Pillsbury physique. Doug, by comparison, was physically awesome. He was not very tall, around five-foot nine or ten. Solidly built, there was no excess about him, only what was necessary to get the job done. The navy button-down shirt and pants he wore to work always smelled like fresh cut wood.
Nearing 50, with salt and pepper already in his beard (one of the few Robichaud males to retain a full head of hair past 30) he was more fit than many men half his age. His palms were like old leather. With his thumb and forefinger he was able to encircle and hold together my arms at the wrist. That first summer I struggled and panted alongside him, doing a third of the work and tiring three times as fast.
By the summer of Grade 9 I had toughened considerably. Earlier that year, Jules had died and the scream of Doug’s mill cutting through wood was no longer echoed by Jules’. Work still needed doing and I was doing more than I had in years past, not thinking there might be a reason for it other than that I’d gotten better at it. Doug still outpaced me. He seemed to be as much a part of the mill’s machinery as the saw or the planer, except that Doug broke down less often.
The planer was notoriously finicky. It would refuse to work, seemingly at random, spitting out rough pieces of wood, planing only two or three sides, occasionally jamming entirely. Each breakdown was followed by a torrent of curses from Doug that would cower Satan himself. Some of the most creative word combinations I’ve ever heard came from planer breakdowns.
I remember the day I first knew something was wrong. A load of cedar logs, like a hundred I had seen before, arrived at the mill. There was no forklift to convey them to the saw. Doug and I were the forklifts. The biggest logs we moved together. Smaller ones were left to me while Doug tackled the medium ones. The log Doug tried to move was wholly unremarkable. Except that he could not lift it. One attempt and he dropped it, suddenly sweating, pain drawing his face tight. This was a man I had seen lift a 30-foot log with a four-foot diameter as if it was a stick. Something was wrong. I moved the rest of the logs that day.
I cannot remember when I first learned that it was cancer. I am not even sure how long Doug knew before anyone else did. I do know that I didn’t try to find out more about it. Work at the mill continued as if nothing had happened. Machinery still broke down like clockwork, except that now Doug was breaking down more often. I was getting more days off, more half days, and somehow I didn’t make the awful connection.
Perhaps I simply did not want to. To this day, I am not sure what the specific type was. The seriousness of Doug’s illness was diminished by his obvious vitality. How could a man still doing work that would crush lesser men be dying? I deluded myself, perhaps, with the comforting observation of his outward vigour. The reality came down on me hard when he asked me to come help him sort through some old stuff he had lying around.
The stuff, as it turned out, was a collection of old trophies. A natural athlete, Doug had played football, hockey, rugby and baseball, and had the hardware to prove it. I assumed we would be sorting them. Instead he asked me to remove the labels and left the room. I peeled for several minutes before it dawned on me. These trophies were part of his life’s accomplishments and here I was taking his name off of them. Doug wasn’t just getting rid of some junk. He was preparing to die. I kept one of the trophies. One from a hockey tournament he won with a team comprised mostly of his brothers and close friends. He asked me why. Embarrassed, I said it was because the trophy looked cool.
Peak season for lumber ended as summer did. Doug worked less and less, until it finally became necessary for him to begin serious chemotherapy. I went back to school. Suddenly bedridden and no longer working at the mill, his deterioration seemed somehow inevitable. By late September, the man who had been running a sawmill in August could barely walk from his bedroom to the living room. His once powerful frame was now being swallowed by a bed that was becoming his whole world.
One day I came in from throwing firewood into my grandmother’s woodshed and Doug asked only to be able to smell the jacket I had been wearing. His eyes lit up momentarily inside their hollowed sockets, then closed as I leaned in so he could smell the jacket he was too weak to lift to his own nose. His whole being was absorbed in drawing that smell out. He reminded me of a man eating his last meal. Not long after that Doug visited the hospital for the last time.
I never did visit Doug in the hospital. I told myself it was about remembering him as he was, but it was a lie. The truth is that I was afraid of what I would see. And afraid of what it would mean. I was afraid that the emaciated thing in the hospital bed would not feel like my uncle. It seemed so perverse to me, that a man who had lived his life outdoors in the country would die in a white-walled hospital in the city. That a man who made his living by the strength of his body would die because that same body turned on itself.
Doug died in November. I do not remember the date. What I do remember is sitting in my uncle Paul’s house, waiting to go to hockey with equipment I had purchased with money I earned working with Doug. Around 8 o’clock, Paul came in and said very simply, “Doug passed away an hour ago.” My response, to my unending shame, was “so I’m not going to hockey then?”
I never enjoyed working in the mill. It was hard, and I am lazy. But Doug pushed me every day to do the job and to do it right no matter how hard it was or how tired I was. Only later did I come to realize the value in that. Working through pain is one thing. Working through your own death is another thing entirely. There was no difference in Doug’s mind between a order placed before he was diagnosed, and an order placed after. The real reason Doug never stopped working in the mill, never spent his last months doing other things, is simple. No false regrets, no “making up for lost time.” His place in the world was one he had established by his own power and his own work. I only hope to be able to achieve a small part of what Doug showed me, that is is possible to live the life you set out to lead.