All Right So Far, by Sheila Balls
Do you know the poem about the optimist who fell ten stories? At each window bar, the story goes, he called to his friends who watched from above, “All right so far!” Sometimes over the past twenty years I played the optimist calling up to my husband Carl. Far more often, he fell as I watched from above. I like to describe my earlier books of personal essays as “light and fluffy”. Oh there were a few sad moments, and more than a few nostalgic ones. But whenever I did readings, it was the humour audiences looked for. They wanted to hear about Carl trapped on the roof in a lightning storm, calling down the chimney “Bring Daddy a broom!” They wanted to visualize the Driveway Ark, and imagine Carl’s face as he heard news of his Christmas gift to me, a lamp with another customer’s frog figurine attached to it: “I’m afraid there’s been an accident in the kiln.” If I was a writer, then Carl was a major contributor . . . to the stories, and to the fun in our lives, and to our marriage to that point. But approaching the turn of the century, the turn of the millennium, we became an ordinary couple at a no longer ordinary time in our life. Holding strong to a sacred marriage plagued by one health crisis after another, with the routine of life mixed in between, we had to learn who we were now in those rare moments that make up the calm before the storm. “Twin trains,” I told my closest friends, “I feel like we are hurtling downhill on twin trains of health and marriage crisis, but there is no one at the controls.” Our relationship of almost thirty years was changing. Carl was changing, both emotionally and physically. And life was speeding up just when it was supposed to slow down. The setting for our story is Bass Lake, a little jewel, green in colour, with only six properties on our side of the shore. On top of a cliff, surrounded by forest, and backed by a meadow where the neighbours cows (errant cows I must note!) grazed, we added two rooms to a small cottage, and looked across the water at the sunrise, hardly believing our luck to live in such a place. I could walk to the highway in ten minutes, and the drive to work was twenty-five, not a problem unless there is a major snowstorm. Carl was a Bruce Peninsula farm boy, raised on land that seemed to be more stones than earth. He started teaching at the age of eighteen, incredibly young because he had been enrolled in grade one at age four. He was bright and quick thinking, good with his hands, always looking to make people laugh. I had grown up in the north, oldest child in a railroading family, raised after age fifteen by my widowed mother, but supported as well by loving aunts in the same community. Books and music were my life (not much has changed there!) and Carl was determined to draw me out, to encourage me to try new things, to help me gain confidence. Meanwhile, he created . . . with a spoon, a trowel, a hammer, a paintbrush. We did the hard work of raising children, first a son, Michael, and then Catherine two years younger. As a family we tended gardens and took in cats, hiked to the neighbourhood waterfall, fed the ducks at the park, and cooked together. As the children became more self sufficient, our interest turned to music, blacklight theatre, variety shows. The children joined in the fun, Michael sometimes in the sound-booth with Carl, both of them dressed in black acting out their father’s ingenious blacklight routines. We knew life was good. I had the idea that as long as I never took that for granted, as long as I was appropriately grateful, things would stay the same. From All Right So Far: “But things never stay the same. Lives can alter in an instant. With us the changes slipped up from behind like waves piling the water higher and higher. Crisis followed crisis until we grew used to ambulances hurtling through the forest, taxis delivering medications, and nurses bustling in and out of our home. Hand in hand with the medical situation, came the fading out of a previously vibrant marriage, one partner not even noticing, the other bewildered at first, then increasingly anxious to restore the way it used to be.” Neither Carl nor I fully understood at the time, why he had grown increasingly anxious to be useful, to find meaning out in the world, but the changes I saw in him left me feeling troubled and abandoned. The choice, it seemed, was to fight or flee. I prepared to fight for the survival of our marriage. It is my hope that All Right So Far will be classified as an inspirational memoir. It tells the story of an intense twelve years, a story I hope might encourage people with their own challenging health and marriage journeys, and one which ultimately can offer a sense of hope and humour.