Troubadour Dreams

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The precipice

Photo credit: Winnipeg Sun
"Then I vomited again, the clear fluid with green flecks splashing onto the floor before me. A few people in front of my wheelchair darted away from me to avoid the projectile stream of puke."

Crohn's Disease wasn't entirely foreign to me at the time of my diagnosis. My mother's sister, Penny, was diagnosed with the disease a few years before. Her battle with it included daily consumption of "maintenance" drugs, a drastic change in her diet and, at times, unbearable pain that made her immobile for days.

According to the results of a test on tissue taken from my bowel during my appendectomy, I was suffering from Crohn's Disease affecting about 18 centimetres of my ileum - a portion of the bowel where the small intestine meets the ascending colon, or large intestine. The pain associated with the diseased ileum and it's location adjacent to the appendix led the walk-in doctor to her diagnosis of appendicitis.

Besides the biopsy of a portion of my small bowel, my diagnosis was also the result of a barium test, where I had to drink a thick, disgusting, metallic paste, sit for up to two hours while it moved through my digestive tract, then obtain x-rays to determine the efficiency of its passage.

Crohn's Disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract anywhere along the digestive system. This inflammation causes abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea, malnutrition, fatigue and weight loss. 
The disease can cause numerous complications, some of them life-threatening. Inflammation can cause an obstruction in the either the small or large intestines. Ulcers, or open sores in the wall of the digestive tract, may also develop with chronic inflammation. When the ulcers extend completely through the bowel, they may develop into fistulas, which is the abnormal connection of tissue between different parts of the intestine, between the intestine and the skin, or between the intestine and other internal organs. Fistulas become especially dangerous when they allow fecal matter to leave the intestine and enter other parts of the body, like the skin, other organs or the abdomen. 
Crohn's Disease may also cause anal fissures, cracks or clefts in the anus or in the skin around the anus. This condition causes painful bowel movements and infections. The disease is also known to cause malnutrition in its patients. Diarrhoea, abdominal pain and cramping make it difficult to consume food and maintain appropriate nutrient levels, while inflamed bowel will lose its ability to effectively absorb required nutrients. Crohn's patients are also at a higher risk of contracting colon cancer.
But this isn't the end of the list of side-effects Crohn's Disease patients need be concerned about. The ailment can also cause arthritis, inflammation of the eyes or skin, clubbing of the fingernails, kidney or gallstones, inflammation of the bile ducts and, in some cases, osteoporosis. 
The cause of Crohn's Disease has not yet been found. The current thought is that the disease is caused by a combination of factors between heredity and a malfunctioning immune system. The idea is that a virus or bacterium is triggering the disease by forcing the immune system to work against the invader. Should the immune system be working abnormally, it will not only attack the invading virus or bacteria, but the healthy cells of the digestive tract, causing the inflammation. 
At one time, diet and stress were thought to be a substantial cause of the disease, but not anymore. They are, however, considered instrumental in triggering relapses of the disease in patients with the disease in remission. 
There is currently no known cure for inflammatory bowel diseases, which also includes ulcerative colitis.
In a report dated May 15, 1997, Dr. G. explained that the Pentasa was having little affect on improving my condition. However, the Crohn's didn't seem to be spreading further up or down the intestinal tract, meaning there was no need to prescribe further medications for the time being.

I weighed about 165 pounds at the time. I continued to suffer from severe abdominal cramping and a total loss of appetite. I tried to return to work, but my condition was growing worse by the day.

After explaining the situation to Dr. G. a week later, he replaced by Pentasa prescription with Prednisone, a corticosteroid that suppresses the immune system for the treatment of severe inflammation. On our first visit with him, he had mentioned the potential for its need, but hoped we wouldn't require the powerful medication. After assessing my condition a second time and seeing the continued downward spiral in my weight and general health, he decided it was a necessity.

While Prednisone has been shown to be effective in everything from arthritis to cancer, consuming the synthetic chemical is a terrible option in any case and, in my opinion, should be used only as a last resort.  Many of the drug's side-effects relate to the patient's mental and emotional well-being. I've come to learn that a positive mind-set is integral to overcoming not only the ailment affecting you, but the stress associated with the entire situation surrounding it. Prednisone seems to do everything it can to mentally defeat you while "helping" ward off whatever is causing the inflammation.

The list of potential side-effects caused by Prednisone includes aggression; agitation; anxiety; blurred vision; dizziness; irregular heartbeat; headaches; irritability; depression; mood swings; nervousness; troubled breathing; numbness or tingling in the arms and legs; pounding ears; swelling in the extremities and other areas of the body; trouble thinking, speaking and walking; and weight gain. 
There are dozens more side-effects on top of these, both physical and neurological.
In my condition at the time, I was willing to try anything. The pain was so severe, it felt like someone was churning a jagged knife around my abdomen from the inside. There was little I could do to fight it. It hit me most frequently at night, when I would just get up and pace the apartment, holding a heating bottle to my stomach or just rubbing my abdomen to try and trick my brain into feeling some other sensation than the unbearable pain.

My "tricks" rarely worked and by late May, I was a physical, spiritual and mental skeleton from the chronic torture, lack of food and inability to hold anything in my stomach.

I had another barium test ordered by Dr. G. After drinking what seemed like a combination of liquid steel and sewage, I remember laying in a dark ante-room in the x-ray ward of the hospital. I shivered in the soulless concrete surroundings. I tried to sleep, but the gurney they supplied me was hard and cold. I just laid there on my left side; which I was told would hasten the barium's passage through my system; trying to sweep away the depression that weighed heavy on my heart and mind.

An hour and a half later, I vomited the barium into a trash can near the exit to the room. I would need to choke down more of the sludge in order to get an accurate reading of the full-length of my digestive system. I cried when the nurse brought me another half portion of barium smoothie. She rubbed my shoulder in sympathy as she left the room.

I saw Dr. G. again on May 27. This time with my mother, who had come to care for me while Coral began taking on more work to fulfill our financial obligations. Dr. G. went through his general assessment and suggested we continue in the direction we were moving. My increased speed at which my condition was deteriorating, however, had both Coral and my mother questioning this assessment and treatment plan.

On May 28, 1997, I woke from a fitful sleep after suffering from another disrupted night of unbearable pain. My mother did her best to nurse me, but, really, there was little she could do but watch her son dissolve before her eyes. It must have been as painful for her as it was for me physically.

That morning, I woke unable to relax any part of my body. I writhed on my bed, only getting up to vomit more clear fluids from by bowels. I hadn't eaten anything solid or moved my bowels in more than a week. A simple glass of water wouldn't even remain in my system.

With tears flowing down my face from the pain and the frustration with the situation I found myself in, I asked Coral and Mom to take me to the emergency ward.

I was in a haze and barely coherent enough to walk down the stairs towards the foyer and out into the parking lot. Coral and my mother each took an arm and guided me to our vehicle - now a Suzuki Sidekick - and rushed me back to the Victoria General Hospital.

I spilled out of the Sidekick at the emergency entrance and stumbled into the building. Someone brought us a wheelchair, where I sat barely noticing the chaos of the conventional city emergency ward around me. Then I vomited again, the clear fluid with green flecks splashing onto the floor before me. A few people in front of my wheelchair darted away from me to avoid the projectile stream of puke.

I was handed a shallow bowl, but it was filled with even more of my stomachs contents - which, despite not being full for days, seemed to have a bottomless supply of bile and stringy, clear, acidic liquids.

Due to my condition, I was placed in a triage line for "urgent" cases, then rushed to the head of the queue as I continued to vomit. Once past the triage desk, I let my mind relax and fell into a cloud, only noticing the nurses buzz around my gurney and the touch of Coral's hand in my own.

A nurse taking my blood pressure winced and sighed when she saw the results. Coral caught a glimpse of the screen despite the nurses efforts to turn it away from her. My heart rate was dangerously low. The nurse rushed away, returning not long after to hook up an IV line to start feeding my emaciated and dehydrated body with nutrients and fluids.

The same internal surgeon who performed my appendectomy arrived to assess my condition and explained that he may need to do extensive surgery to determine what exactly was happening inside of me.

Despite feeling a peace and relaxation I hadn't experienced in weeks, I didn't realize how close to the precipice I was. At that moment, with consciousness dimming and my senses deceiving me, my body was giving up the fight.

In my stupor, I didn't realize how close I was to dying.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Food equals pain

We lived on a tight budget those first couple of years, but Coral and I grew comfortable with married life without the embellishments many young couples accrue today; the house, the camper, the recreation vehicles, cable television, a full pantry.

We did, however, grow tired of our living accommodations at Adamar Place - a 12-floor apartment complex just off of Pembina Highway in South Winnipeg. Most of its residents were senior citizens and didn't appreciate younger people having guests over for dinner or drinks. Some complained simply because the television was too loud.

At the time, there was little we could do with where we lived. Coral began work on her Masters Degree in Kinesiology and drew a small income with part-time employment at a private athletic therapy clinic across the city. I was still drawing a miniscule, full-time salary at a sporting goods store in St. Vital Centre. Between rent, utilities and the need to maintain two vehicles, the monetary intake could not keep up with consumption.

But we were happy. Our social circle included a decent group of young employees from the store and some friends from university who stayed in Winnipeg after they graduated. We met Steve and Kathleen while living in Mary Speechly Hall at the U. of M., where we also developed a friendship with Calvin and Tanya. Calvin was the Resident Assistant on the seventh and fourth floors during my two-year residency at Speechly. Coral and I would exchange visits with them at our respective apartments, grab a meal at an area restaurant, catch a movie or spend the night at a bar.

Although there were benefits to living at Adamar Place, including its close location to my workplace and the ability to simply grab my fishing rod and walk behind the building to toss a line into the Red River, Coral and I craved accommodations similar to that rented by Cal and Tanya. The couple lived in Tudor Village, a two-storey, alpine-themed conglomeration of apartment complexes located a few blocks south of the university. Coral and I left our names with Tudor Village management in the hopes that they would call with news that an apartment had opened up. In the spring of 1996, one did and we snapped it up.

Although the Adams's high rise apartment served its purpose; it was cheap, convenient, clean and had a pool in the basement that I used a total of two times; our new home was much more accommodating to our lifestyle. The tenants were younger and more patient about fellow residents with a spirited social life. Many attended university themselves, so there were times when we were the ones putting up with a loud party or a fight in the parking lot.

Nevertheless, we loved our new home. It was smaller than the previous place, but there were only two of us to be concerned about and it was a bike-ride away from Coral's work on campus. Cal and Tanya lived two buildings away, making it convenient for us to visit over meals and a few drinks on a Friday night or a lazy weeknight. And it had a wood-burning fireplace, which I used constantly during the winter.

Whenever we found the time, we ventured back to Saskatchewan to visit our folks or camped at White Shell Provincial Park with Steve and Kathleen. I found myself losing some of the weight I had put on during my two-year stint at the U. of M. This was partially due to our lack of finances. We couldn't just whip down to the convenience store for an unhealthy snack or to the fast-food place for a meal. We scraped by on what we could pick up cheap at the nearby Safeway.

I was also more active. Coral and I jogged two or three times a week on a middle school track located across the street from our apartment complex. That activity was something I took up in my senior year of high school, but stopped after entering university. We also enjoyed regular walks or bike rides through King's Park, a green space along the Red River a few blocks south of Tudor Village.

In the inventory room at the store, I found and purchased a cheap pair of inline skates - which were exploding in popularity then. When the ice and snow disappeared, I began skating the five kilometres to St. Vital Centre. I was getting leaner and stronger. I was still smoking, unfortunately, but my lifestyle was changing for the better otherwise. I drank less, and ate better.

Sometimes, monsters lurk in happy places, though. There was more to my weight-loss than I first suspected.
And, while our living accommodations were comfortable, they would serve as the setting for my first tour through hell.


The store I worked in had a managerial shuffle through the summer of 1996. An assistant manager left the company, while the manager who hired me was promoted to regional responsibilities and took over a struggling store located in Kildonan Place at the north end of Winnipeg. A young, co-manager from the Polo Park Shopping Mall location was moved to St. Vital Centre.

Although I had made inroads in impressing the previous manager, we still didn't see eye-to-eye on many things. Many of them were corporate regulations that he had no control over, but I felt his strict adherence to them - while he bent them for himself - was hypocritical and immoral.

The younger manager also stuck closely to these regulations, but he was more adept at handling complaints and situations with employees in a political manner that seemed to keep everyone content. In fact, our store began to grow due, in part, to a fresh attitude and an atmosphere of success developed by the new manager.

You will learn later that he could still be an asshole.

The change in management rejuvenated by own attitude towards my work. I didn't feel so intimidated and was more open about my ideas, concerns and suggestions. Although I was still a full-time, manager-trainee, I took it upon myself to take on more responsibilities and be proactive with what I thought would be a long-term career in the retail industry.

But in December of 1996, something else was starting to occupy my mind. Although I had continued to become more physically active, I was having unexplained abdominal pains that, at times, were unbearable. They were sporadic at first, striking me at work once or twice every couple of weeks as I ate my lunch; sandwiches made with bread we made in a machine at home. When the cramping hit, I would eat as much as I could, but generally found myself trashing most of my meals.

At night, I was generally fine. For some reason, these episodes primarily hit me at work. It wasn't long before they were happening everywhere at any time.

Nevertheless, I continued to socialize over a beer or two, and had a growing addiction to sunflower seeds, which would ultimately prove to be a dangerous combination.

The cramping in my abdomen - which focussed in my lower-right quadrant - grew more frequent during the final weeks of winter in 1997. The pain wasn't enough, in my niave opinion, to seek medical attention, but I continued to eat less, lose weight and suffer from severe low amounts of energy due to a lack of sleep.

Besides being unable to move my bowels on a regular basis, I was beginning to wake up in the middle of the night with torturous pain in my torso. It seemed to cycle in a clockwise fashion from the bottom right area to the top, to the left, back to the right again. No matter how much heat I applied or how long I rubbed my gut area, the pain would not subside for hours. All I could do was get up, rub my belly and walk around our tiny suite.

That spring, the City of Winnipeg was under serious threat of flooding due to a wall of water being pushed up through Southern Manitoba by the Red River. It quickly became known as "The Flood of the Century," particularly after the it sunk the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Television coverage of the disaster there showed a downtown core immersed in water while fires leapt from building to building in the city's commercial sector. About 46,000 people were evacuated from Grand Forks, and the damage from the flood motivated Manitoba's provincial government to move approximately 25,000 people from homes located on or near the Red River flood plain. Besides people, thousands of farm animals were transported to high ground, including more than 2,000 head of cattle and 45,000 chickens.

Thousands of volunteers stepped forward to help save people and property from Winnipeg to the Canada-U.S. international border 100 kilometres south. The Manitoba government also requested help from members of the Canadian Armed Forces and a shoring of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. As the flood moved north, heavy machinery was commandeered to construct a 42-kilometre-long wall of earth to save the City of Winnipeg. It was named the Brunkild Z-dike and cost $10 million to finish.

The flood ultimately expanded to cover about 2,560 square kilometres and became known as the "Red Sea." The water caused about $3.5 billion in damages, $500 million of which occurred in Manitoba.

Despite finding myself in pain more frequently, I used the afternoon of a day off of work to help sandbag around a home sitting alongside the Red River near King's Park. I stood in a line of sandbag tossers for about three hours, rushing to keep up with the rising river level. At one point, I stood at the top of the dike slinging sandbags to the next person in line while the Red River rushed just two or three feet below my feet. The experience was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

It also taught me lessons I would use to help save my parents home from severe flooding along the Qu'Appelle River and its chain of lakes in 2011 and 2014.

By late afternoon, the pain in my abdomen had returned and I decided to go home. The idea that helping to stem a potential disaster may take my mind off my mysterious health issue and the painful side-effects did not come to fruition.

Coral and her athletic-therapist friend, Liane, continued to help southern Manitoba residents affected by the flood for the next two weeks. On several occasions, they stood along Canadian Forces members on the front of a pay-loader that carried them through frigid water to farm homes requiring sandbagging and continual water pumping.

Although I've always been a news hound and journalist at heart who craved being an eyewitness to major events, I missed much of the Flood of the Century. Most of it was spent at maintaining a sports store with, understandably, little customer traffic and trying to find ways to fight what was quickly becoming constant pain.

By early May, I couldn't take it any more. I had been suffering for a week without intermission and dropped about 15 pounds in the previous month and half. I sought help from a doctor at a walk-in clinic near St. Vital Centre. The doctor - an attractive-but-curt An young woman with very little patience - examined me without emotion. She disappeared for a moment, then returned snapping a rubber glove on her hand.

Although a rectal examination is not an unusual part of a general physical examination, especially for men over the age of 40, it was an entirely new and incredibly uncomfortable experience for me. After poking around for what seemed like five minutes - but was probably more like 30 or 40 seconds - she determined that I was suffering from appendicitis and required immediate attention. She wrote a prescription for pain medication and suggested I enter the hospital via the emergency ward.

After explaining the situation to my manager at the store, I went home and called Coral, who picked me up and transported me up Pembina Highway to the Victoria Hospital. We waited about three hours before I was finally assessed by a triage nurse. Carrying the written diagnosis from the doctor at the walk-in clinic helped move things along, somewhat.

While the growing pain and concern about what exactly was going on in my torso was not new, I was surprised to find myself so suddenly admitted to the hospital waiting for surgery. I was 23 years old and almost two years into a marriage that hadn't even been celebrated with a honeymoon yet.

This was not part of the plan.

But, all things considered, an appendectomy was a relatively minor procedure if the infected appendix was diagnosed in time. I had laproscopic surgery - which required only a two small incisions in the lower right corner of my abdomen - and the appendix was removed.

During his regular rounds the next day, the internal surgeon who performed the appendectomy stepped into my room and stood at the end of my bed. With Coral at my side, he explained that tests on my appendix showed it to be healthy. What he did see during the operation was about "10 centimetres of terminal ileum inflammation with creeping fat." Tests were still being completed on small portion of my bowel to determine what exactly was causing the inflammation.

I was released from the hospital with recovery instructions and a referral to a gastroenterologist; yet another doctor. In a period of days, I went from not even maintaining a family physician to having an internal surgeon and a gastroenterologist on my case.

My condition worsened during my recovery period at home. My appetite had lapsed substantially and when I did eat, I frequently vomited a couple of hours later. I was no longer finding it difficult to move my bowels, but now the pendulum had swung the opposite way. The movements were loose and frequent.

Nevertheless, I returned to work a week later, spurred along by a solid supply of Tylenol 3 tablets. Frankly, I was stoned most of the day. I zoned out in a quiet corner of the store most of my shift. When I did serve customers, I made mistakes punching in their purchases on the till. I laughed at myself and explained my lack of functionality to total strangers by saying I had just at an appendectomy and was on "some pretty awesome meds." I was also taking a daily regime of Pentasa, a strong anti-inflammatory generally prescribed to patients suffering from inflammatory disorders.

The store manager, who was patient with me despite my condition, tired of hearing me tell this to customers, so he put me on inventory-taking duties in the stockroom. I wasn't productive there either.

Dr. G., a gastroenterologist in Winnipeg, broke the news of my final diagnosis at our first meeting. I was deemed a chronic patient of an inflammatory bowel disease known as Crohn's.

The last threads of my belief that I was invincible - that I would lead a long, disease-free, healthy life with Coral - were instantly shattered. My mind clouded and my body went numb. This time, it wasn't prescription medication putting me in a state of delirium.

After living the first 23 years of my life without even a broken bone, I had suddenly become the victim of a chronic, incurable disease.

The shock and depression linked to the situation was only dulled by more pain. I knew then I was on a long, painful, arduous journey.

Image credit:

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Love committed

Chris Armstrong didn't have a vehicle to drive the night we went to meet Coral and Dian in Rocanville, so we jumped in my boxy, beige, two-door 1980 Plymouth Caravelle; a boat of a vehicle I wish I still owned to this day. It was an awesome ride for a teenager with places to go.

And I finally had someplace to go.

It was early evening by the time we were speeding down the back-country grids on our way to Rocanville. Chris was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, which made me self-conscious. I was definitely overdressed for the night. I wore a green, collared shirt with a bolo tie, khaki pants and dress shoes. My thick mane of hair was slicked back with a part up the middle.

The style was the very definition of a nerd over-compensating for his lack of confidence. After being as real as possible the previous night, I was trying way too hard to impress her. Damn it! I was blowing it before I even got there.

Coral's casual apparel made me stand out even more. She also wore a simple t-shirt, denim shorts and glasses - which she was not wearing the previous night.

"I really wasn't expecting to see you," she said later, explaining that Dian helped her spritz her hair and do her make-up after telling her we were arriving any moment.

"But I told you last night that I would come if you wanted me to," I said, a little put off because she did not remember the final words we exchanged only 17 hours before. "It doesn't matter. You look awesome."

Coral just smiled and shook her head. I had an unsettling feeling that she didn't want me to be there.

After talking for a few minutes on the deck of the Hanna family home, we moved downstairs, where we all played a few games of table-tennis and drank Pepsi. It was a pretty innocent evening.

Later, we all moved to the couch where Dian put a movie in the VCR. I vowed to continue being myself, but I built the nerve to put an arm around Coral as we watched the video. Later, we held hands. Things were going extremely well.

By 1:45 a.m., Coral had to leave in order to meet her 2 a.m. curfew. I offered to walk her home, but she refused.

"I don't live far," she said. "My dad may be up waiting for me and he'll ask a lot of questions if I show up with a guy."

We stopped midway up Dian's driveway to say goodbye. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and leaned in for a kiss. There was no way I was patting her on the shoulder again.

She didn't push me away. In fact, she pulled my head down closer. My legs were jelly.

"So," I said, keeping a hold on her after our first kiss. "Does this mean you'll go out with me again?"

Coral sighed, leaned her head a little and smiled wide.

"I guess so," she said.

We kissed again then she was on her way.

"I guess so?" I had just scaled a significant wall in my life by scoring with a smart, attractive girl from another town and her response to my proposal for a further relationship was, "I guess so?"

I have to admit that those three words concerned me. Regardless, I was terribly proud of myself. I had landed another date with a girl I was quickly coming to like - a lot. Considering my lack of luck with girls through my final three years of high school - I was the "Let's just be friends" guy - I was going to take what I can get.

The summer after graduating from high school was remarkable. I fell madly in love with Coral, something that happened quickly. In fact, it was only a few weeks into our budding relationship when I told her I loved her.

"You barely know me," Coral said with a chuckle.

"I know enough," I said. I really didn't know enough, however. I learned later that she was trying to find a way to end our summer fling before she entered university in Winnipeg.

Nevertheless, when I celebrated our graduation from Whitewood High School in September, she returned from Manitoba to be my escort. A few weeks later, she told herself she would break up with me after taking me to a Blue Rodeo concert for my birthday. She couldn't bring herself to do it, though.

Despite wanting to end our relationship - which I did not know about - Coral returned from Winnipeg to be my escort at my graduation from Whitewood High School in September of 1991.

I didn't see any signs of her hesitancy. I was so blinded by my feelings for her, even the slightest hint of Coral's discomfort with our relationship went unnoticed.

We stayed in constant contact by telephone through those months apart. Whenever I could, I drove to Winnipeg see her. When she was back in Rocanville, she always set time aside for us to be alone away from her family.

In Whitewood, I spent my time working odd jobs and hunting or fishing with Dale Sawatzki, the same kid who bullied me years earlier. We were now close friends. I also spent time with Tim Norick, a long-time friend from down the street who was finishing Grade 12 that year and playing for the Pipestone Valley Jets.

The rest of my high school crew was building their new lives in the city while attending post-secondary school, but I was not upset about having to wait a year before beginning my education. I had fun that fall and winter in Whitewood, enjoying the sudden freedom not having to attend school offered me.

I couldn't stand being away from Coral, though. I worried about her endlessly; not for her safety, but that she would find someone else.

Coral had to switch her studies to athletic therapy after being denied entry into the College of Physiotherapy. This meant she would spend more time with the U. of M. Bison athletes.

Male athletes.


Arrogant, in-your-face, sometimes steroid-filled hunks of meat that felt the campus was their domain.

This was the vision I held in my head, anyway. You can see why I - a nerdy, naive, small-town, geek - worried about her.

Despite her continued trepidation about maintaining our relationship, it blossomed and her need to be free of me disappeared through the summer of 1992. We shared another great summer together - which included attending a rock festival at Craven, Sask. headlined by Bryan Adams.

I was accepted into university, but not at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. In the fall of 1992, I began preliminary studies for my journalism degree at the University of Manitoba. In fact, I lived in Mary Speechly Hall in a room on the seventh floor directly below Coral's room on the all-female eighth floor. There really would be no escaping me. It's a good thing she had finally admitted that she loved me, because it would seem like I was shamelessly stalking her, which I was doing.

My first year of post-secondary education was less about education and more about breaking out. Although my upbringing was based on responsible freedom, I didn't partake in many of the activities many of the other teenagers in Whitewood did. I went to parties sporadically; I drank alcohol only on occasion; and I never took illicit drugs of any kind at any time.

But university life changed me. While I continued to refuse to take drugs, my intake of alcohol through my freshman year of university turned into abuse. I was partying constantly, even during the week. When I had difficulties in a particular class - as I did in French, Macro-Economics and Biology - I dropped it early enough to get a refund and spent it in the south-Winnipeg bars.

My living accommodations didn't help. The seventh floor of Mary Speechly Hall that year was known as the party floor. When there was nothing going on in either Speechly or Tache residence buildings, something was started in our dorm. When something was going on, such as an on-campus concert or social, the party ended very early in the morning in our dorm.

Considering it was my first year living out from under my parents' wings, it was a blast. Looking back on it two decades later, it's quite concerning. I held decent grades in the classes I did attend, but my time at the U. of M. became less about preparing for a career then drinking, socialising and being with Coral.

Nevertheless, I signed up for the 1993-1994 academic year, this time with Coral living off-campus. I returned to Speechly Hall where my misconduct continued. I didn't drop as many courses as I did the previous year and my involvement on the social scene was scaled back, but not enough to really make effective use of my education. By the end of my sophomore year - when I was supposed to be looking forward to starting my journalism degree at the University of Regina - I barely had enough credits to have a year of Arts education under my belt. I was spinning my tires and I knew if I stayed any longer, my dreams of being a journalist and writer would be lost.

Plus the drinking and a growing smoking habit was taking its toll on my body. I entered the U. of M. in 1992 weighing about 190 pounds; not in ripped, muscular condition, but very healthy. I left two years later a bloated 240 pounds due to a lack of consistent exercise, a cafeteria diet, alcohol and a laissez-faire attitude towards my well-being.

After finishing up my sophomore year, I needed to make a decision; either I attend a trade school to get a diploma in communications or I start mailing resumes to newspapers until an opportunity presented itself. For the latter idea, I was hoping that my work with both the Whitewood Herald through high school and two years with the University of Manitoba's, The Manitoban, would be enough to earn a cub reporting spot on a weekly newspaper somewhere.

I polished my resume and began applying to newspapers in Southeast Saskatchewan. I also had an interest in broadcasting, and submitted to advertisements for newsreaders and radio reporters in the region. While a lack of experience in the broadcast genre was going to make it difficult, I told station managers at interviews that I was willing to do anything to break into the industry. It didn't help. I failed to find a job over the airwaves.

I did, however, manage to get hired at the Weyburn Review, an old-style, large format weekly newspaper located in Weyburn, Sask. I loaded a couch, a bed, an old television and a plug-in frying pan into my father's truck and moved into a small, bachelor pad in the Prairie city.

I learned more about writing and journalism through the next several months than I had since my first published article six years earlier. At first, the editor - also a self-educated journalist - felt I was not worth keeping and wanted to relieve me after the three-month probationary period. The editor refused to treat me with kid-gloves and it was the best thing for me.

I stuck it out with the help of an advertising sales person who also did some reporting. He had my back during a meeting with the publisher that could have seen my termination. 

The work was difficult and I was terribly lonely without Coral, but we visited each other as much as possible. At one point, I was working a weekend shift while Coral was in Weyburn for a visit. I had my work completed by Sunday afternoon and was planning some downtime with my girlfriend when I received a phone call to return to the office. The editor had seen some of my photography print-work and was very concerned. I left Coral and returned to the office, where I was summarily admonished for wasting print paper and producing poor quality photos in the darkroom. I had to stay and rework everything.

Frustrated by the editor's lack of professionalism - although he was right about the print-work, I was still a rookie in the darkroom - I called Coral and told her I had to stay at work. She packed her bags and came by the office to say goodbye.

After she left, I walked to the office washroom and cried. I was frustrated with my job and extremely lonely. Playing on the local fastball club and officiating hockey did nothing to make me feel at home. I knew then I needed to leave, but remained knowing that this may be my only chance to assert myself in print journalism without a diploma or a degree.

Ultimately, the troublesome editor left and was replaced by someone much more easy going. However, after just six months on the job, I was the longest serving reporter on staff. This put me in more direct communication with the publishers, who came to be even more difficult to get along with than the previous editor.

Although my journalist and writing skills were moving forward exceedingly well, I was miserable and decided it was time to move on.

Through the summer and early fall of 1994, I came up with a plan to escape Weyburn and began saving as much money as I could muster. I sacrificed meals and scaled back my cigarette consumption - the lone killer habit held over from university.

As winter began to show signs of approaching, I loaded my car for a visit with Coral, who was now living in another apartment while attending her fourth year of Kinesiology at the U. of M. Right behind me, in the back seat of my old Plymouth Caravelle sat my plan. It was a contained in a square box the size of a softball. Inside of that was a smaller box holding the result of the money I had been saving; an engagement ring.

I had failed to give Coral a birthday gift the previous July, so as I entered her apartment and pulled my bags into her bedroom, I threw the box on the bed.

"I was supposed to give you this a while ago," I said non-chalantly. "Happy belated."

Coral picked it up and started unwrapping it as I pretended to settle my suitcase and clothing into a corner of the room for my weekend stay. Tears started to roll down her face when she saw the ring-box inside. She immediately knew what was going to happen next.

I took the box from her hands, pulled out the ring, got on my knees and asked the girl I unexpectedly met at a high school dance to marry me.

I was kind of expecting a sigh and the words, "I guess so," but Coral was speechless. She sobbed and nodded her head "Yes."

On June 3, 1995, Coral and I were married at the St. Joseph Church in Whitewood. It was four years and two days after we first spoke to each other at the local Royal Canadian Legion Hall. It only made sense that we celebrated with a reception and dance in the room where it all began.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Girl

I had spotted her months before I met her. She was sitting in the bleachers of the Don McPhail Arena in Whitewood about a hundred feet away beside the girlfriend of Chris Armstrong, a friend of mine who played with the Midget 'AA' Pipestone Valley Jets. As the  host team, the Jets were vying for the Saskatchewan Hockey Association Provincial Championships.

At one point during the final game of the tournament - which the Jets won and earned the 1991 provincial crown - I locked eyes with her from my position standing behind the end-boards in a corner of the rink. She caught me staring at her blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, I immediately turned my attention back to the game in front of me.

I noted how attractive she was, but had no thoughts about approaching her. I was too busy taking notes for the article I was working on regarding the tournament for the Whitewood Herald, my hometown newspaper.

Roughly three months later at the high school dance in the local Royal Canadian Legion Hall, I had totally forgotten seeing her at the hockey game. She attended the function with the same friend she was at the game with, but seemed to have come without an escort.

Since my "date" had wandered off to hang out with her friends, I got up the nerve to ask her to dance. My heart raced as I approached her, but I kept telling myself that the worst thing she could do was refuse.

Instead, she looked up me with her giant blue eyes and said, "Okay."

Of course, the song happened to be "Paradise By The Dashboard Lights" by Meatloaf; an  inconvenient tune for three reasons. First of all, that particular song is about a teenaged guy trying to get lucky with a teenaged girl, making a promise to stay with her forever in order to get lucky, then dreading that decision for the rest of his life.

Secondly, the song's tempo is wide-ranging, going from solid-paced arena rock to a slow ballad and back again through to the end of the song. It was awkward dancing with a total stranger to a song like that.

Finally, the bloody single-release version of the song is almost eight minutes long. That should have given us time to chat a bit as we moved, but I was shy and nervous and the volume on the music was far too loud.

"I'm Chris," I said as we squared up on the dance floor.

She mouthed a reply, but I couldn't hear it over the music. I held a hand up to my ear and leaned in closer.

"Coral," she said with a huge smile. It was a name I had never heard of until that moment.

We danced a verse and a chorus in silence.

"Having fun?" I finally asked.

She nodded and smiled again.

In my mind, I felt she was out of my league. She was short, lean and athletic. Her long, blonde hair was curled into ringlets with a lock of it knotted into a pony-tail at the top of her head. She wore a denim vest with a red, plaid blouse and blue jeans.

She was "hot, hot, hot," as the father of another childhood friend used to say.

We exchanged "Thank yous" after the marathon-dance was completed and walked separate ways across the hall. That was easy, I thought as I joined Trevor at a table near the stage. He was my main chum in Grade 12.

"Who's the girl?" he asked.

"Coral-something. She's here with Dian, Armstrong's girlfriend from Rocanville," I said.

I was only thinking one thing at that point; get a second dance. After escorting home the girl I had invited to the social, I returned to the Legion Hall and took that second trip to the floor with Coral.

And a third.

Later, I sat beside her and chatted while her friends occupied themselves with their own conversations. Coral was from Rocanville finishing her final year of high school before moving to Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba. We danced again, then parted to continue the night with our own groups of friends.

This was a giant leap for me. I had never made such a thorough attempt meet a girl from another community simply for the hell of it. I was shy, self-conscious and not very confident with people I didn't know well. In my mind, all it was just a one-night introduction that would go no further than the doors of the Whitewood Legion Hall. I think that's why my confidence got a boost that night.

Dian Hanna and Chris Armstrong (left) introduced Coral and I
to each other when Coral attended a high school dance in
Whitewood without an escort. This photo was taken about a
month later.

I was wrong. Later, as the hall's main lights were turned on and everyone filed out of the Legion, I was helping Trevor move sound equipment when Chris Armstrong walked up to me.

"Hey, man," he said. "What are you doing now?"

It was an odd question coming from him. Chris was a friend that was two years my junior. We generally associated during games of shinny, road hockey, football or scrub baseball on the schoolyard. Once and a while, we'd joke around at one of the few parties I attended in high school with Trevor, but generally, our relationship was held to our interest in sports.

"We were thinking of going to the Can-Am. Why? What's up?" I asked.

"Just wondering if you wanted to keep Coral company for a while. The rest of us want to go hang out somewhere, but - you know - she's kind of by herself," he said. Coral had come as a fifth. Chris was with Dian, and Coral's other friend, Tryphena, also attended the dance with a guy.

"Sure," I said before really considering what I was agreeing to. In fact, I was caught so off guard, I didn't even have time to be nervous about it.

I let Trevor know that I wouldn't be joining him and the rest of our clique at the Can-Am Travel Stop - Whitewood's 24-hour gas station, convenience story and restaurant.

"What's going on?" Trevor said.

"That girl I met? I'm going to go with Armstrong and keep her company for a while," I said.

"Alright, dude," Trevor said.

"Itchaaaayy!" Rob said with a wry smirk across his face.

I smirked and told them I would try to catch up with them later. I followed Chris out of the Legion to a small, two-door car, where I was told to squeeze into the back seat. Coral, wearing that giant smile - with a hint of embarrassment in it this time - shifted so she could sit on my lap.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," was all I said.

Chris threw the car in drive and we headed north up Lalonde Street, Whitewood's main drag. After crossing the tracks, he hung a left at the entrance to Larson Ball Park and tucked the car behind the children's play structures near the public swimming pool. We spilled out and sat at a nearby picnic table. The six of us joked with each other for a few minutes, but it wasn't long before Coral and I were left alone. The other four split into couples and disappeared for what I suspect were heavy make-out sessions. Uncomfortable with the knowledge of that activity going on nearby, I asked Coral if she wanted to go for a walk. She agreed.

Under the glimmer of the streetlights that lit the park, Coral had a glow of innocence I had not noticed in the dim confines of the Legion Hall. We walked around the pool along the Whitewood Golf and Country Club lane back to Lalonde Street. Her hair brushed from shoulder to shoulder whenever she turned her head. The simple beauty of that alone tied my nerves in knots.

We headed south down Lalonde Street with no specific plan to walk in any particular direction. I just started asking questions, one after another, about anything that would keep the conversation moving forward. My anxiety subsided as we talked. We were just two kids getting to know each other.

Coral Ludwig was also 17 years old, turning 18 on July 31. She had two sisters - one older and one younger. Her father worked at PotashCorp Rocanville as an electrician. Her mother, coincidentally like mine, ran a daycare out of her home.

Coral was a provincial champion figure-skater when she was 13 and worked as a lifeguard at Rocanville's indoor pool. That fall, she planned to study physiotherapy at the U. of M. in Winnipeg.

But why was she playing the fifth wheel at a dance in Whitewood? She was recently dumped by a guy from Esterhazy, Sask., she said. Dian, her best friend, coerced her into joining them.

On my side of the conversation, she learned that I was also 17 and had planned to study pre-journalism at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon before my parents and I determined we were not prepared to finance my education. I had decided to take the year off of school to work.

Coral also learned that I played competitive, senior mens' fastball and officiated hockey. She had known about the latter after attending several Pipestone Valley Jets games the previous winter. I was a linesman in the Saskatchewan Midget 'AA' Hockey League.

"You're the guy," she said, pointing her finger at me, a big smile spread across her face. "You're the one with the baby-face. I mentioned it several times to Dian."

Oddly, I wasn't offended by that. In fact, I was flattered that she had not only noticed me on the ice, but remembered my face, regardless of how somewhat-condescendingly she described it.

We continued to walk and chat for the next hour and a half. I made no attempt to do anything but be a gentleman. I didn't try to hold her hand and maintained a comfortable distance away from her side as we meandered along the streets of Whitewood.

For the first time in my life, I conversed with a girl I had never met before, keeping her the centre of attention and focussing on just being my authentic self. I didn't try to impress her and I was honest about my shortfalls, like how I was bullied most of my life.

It was nearly 2:30 a.m. when we returned to the park. It was a half-hour past Coral's curfew and she was concerned. They were still a half-hour drive away from her home in Rocanville.

Coral, Dian and Tryphena needed to use the washroom and walked over to the public facilities attached to the the pool house. I stayed back with Chris and Tryphena's date.

"How did it go?" Chris asked.

"Okay, I guess," I said, shrugging my shoulders. I still wasn't expecting anything out of the night. "She's great. I've seen her before; at some of your hockey games."

"I'm going to Rocanville tomorrow night to see Dian. You want to come?" Chris said.

Holy shit, yes! I didn't care what I already had planned the next evening. It was immediately canceled.

Coral had just spent about two hours doing nothing but talking with me and seemed to enjoy my presence. I had zero expectations from the night, but I was not going to pass up another opportunity to see her. Chris and I made plans for when he would pick me up the next day before the girls returned from the bathroom and we all piled back into the car.

When we arrived at my home on the south end of Whitewood, Coral and I stepped out of the car.

"Chris mentioned something about going to see Dian tomorrow night. Do you mind if I come out with him and see you again?" I said.

Coral's round eyes reflected the porch light above our back door. She grinned and nodded.

"Okay. I'll see you then," I said, then patted her on the shoulder.

I fricken' patted her on the shoulder! No kiss; not even a peck on the cheek.

Damn it! What a geek move! I was such a nerd. I don't know why I said goodbye that way. Doing nothing at all would have been better than a pat on the shoulder. Looking back on it, it seems silly and little demeaning to her; like I was saying goodbye to a child.

I heard giggling in the car as she opened the door and went back inside. Chris sped away while I watched the car until it disappeared behind the neighbour's hedge.

The last dance of my high school career had turned into quite a night. As I walked down the stairs to my bedroom in the basement, I wondered if I would be able to sleep with my mind racing about the next night.