Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Year Like No Other

Chapter 11

"A man's spirit will endure sickness;
but a broken spirit who can bear?"
                                                                                                      (Proverbs 18:14)


East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. The easterner in the west and the far easterner in the western east did meet. That expansive twixt between the distant twain was regarded with disdain. East and west would meet again, I maintained. 

Already more than a month had passed since my visit to Pittsburgh and I was miserable. I was stoically struggling to endure my dreary reality and emptiness after that wonderful week in October that I still had difficulty believing had actually occurred. I missed Phi Bang and I missed the new happiness and excitement that she had so briefly brought into my life. 

The third Wednesday of November was cool and cloudless. The sun had not yet appeared over the horizon and a heavy frost coated everything, a rare but welcome break from the usual drab and wet gray that usually painted Vancouver. 

That November morning I was on my way to another day at work and was waiting at the junction of Fraser and West Broadway for the bus to arrive. Others were also waiting for the bus but I had not been paying any attention. The bus pulled up to the curb to make its stop and one of the ladies turned to board. As we glanced at each other in that very brief instant, I was certain I had blurted aloud Phi Bang's name. Ignoring me, the Asian lady climbed aboard the bus while I just stood and watched her, certain that I had been looking at Phi Bang again. Embarrassed by the incident, I declined to board choosing instead to wait for the next bus. The resemblance to Phi Bang was uncanny and that chance encounter with a complete stranger left me wondering if I would ever see Phi Bang again. Vietnam had always seemed to me like such a distant far away place but Pittsburgh did not seem any nearer.

Since first learning that Phi Bang had safely arrived in North America, I had been consumed by a determination to travel anywhere to meet her. My goal was accomplished but I had never given any thought to what had to follow. I was not prepared for the searing emotional pain of having to leave and say goodbye to Phi Bang and then having to live with this dark despair that followed. Separated by distance and being alone again was far more difficult to endure than the loneliness I had known before we had met.

Saturday morning commenced with awakening to darkness and torrential rain. Looking out the window would not be necessary because blowing rain was noisily hitting against the glass. Dawn was more than an hour away but the darkness would only give way to grayness and wetness anyway.

A strike at Canada Post had made communicating with Phi Bang a challenge and my Saturdays had become "Amtrak" days. An Amtrak day to Seattle was long, almost five hours of train travel to get there, seven hours there and another five hours to return. Travelling alone and spending a rainy day in Seattle was depressing. Daily I prayed to God and begged for a miracle to change the circumstances in my life, so that doing crazy things such as going to Seattle to send and receive mail would not be necessary, but nothing changed. I felt as if the louder I shouted toward heaven, the more God ignored me.

More than four hours remained until train time and I was using those hours in Seattle’s King Street station to write to Phi Bang. I wanted to mail one more letter before heading back to Canada. A panhandler was shuffling around and searching through the station’s garbage bins. Eventually he stopped in front of me but I did not look up from what I was doing. 

“Do you have any money you can part with?” he asked.

That was a strange way to ask for money because all money was money that could be parted with in one way or another. 

“Here.” I eventually answered and handed him a few dollars, hoping he would go away.

“Thank you.” he replied, sounding somewhat surprised.

Instead of wandering off, the vagrant sat on the bench and began to talk to me. “I haven’t always lived like this.”

I did not say anything. I did not know what to say to him. I did not want to have to say anything to him.

“Where are you from?” he asked, even though I had remained silent.

“Canada.” I finally answered, trying to avoid a conversation.

“What are you doing down here?” He asked.

"Just visiting from Canada.” I answered.

“I’m from Mississippi.” He replied.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, aware that Seattle was far from anywhere in Mississippi.

“Couldn’t take it any more.” He stated, now sounding somewhat agitated.

“Take what?” I asked.

“All the nonsense, the lies, the crap. I had to get out.” He continued, sounding as if he was repeating to me something that he thought I should have already known.

What he said did not mean anything to me and I did not ask for more details. I really did not want to know any more.

“I quit university.” He added, and then continued, “I’ve been drifting around and trying to find a purpose in life.”

He went on to inform me that his father owned a resort in Kenora, Ontario, and then began to tell me about the resort and then abruptly stopped and asked, “Have you ever heard of Kenora?”

“Yes, it’s near the Ontario-Manitoba border. CP Rail’s trains roll through there.” I replied.

“Yeah, you know it.” He confirmed. 

He then handed me a folded slip of paper with the name and address of a resort in Kenora and while pointing at the paper said, “If you ever visit Kenora, go there and ask for my father. Just tell him I told you to ask for him.”

He wished me well and wandered away and I wondered why he had stopped to talk. I looked at the name and address on the paper and thought, “Why would I ever go to Kenora?”

His comment about quitting university and finding a purpose in life stirred me though and compelled me question why I was coming here to Seattle every Saturday. Desperation was my reason. But what was my purpose?

Amtrak’s Pacific International was a four-car train outfitted with worn-out, hand-me-down equipment from Union Pacific and Great Northern. A dome-observation car on the tail end gave the train an air of importance; not every passenger train included dome cars. Unlike CP Rail’s Canadian, which offered coach seating in their dome cars, Amtrak had turned the dome into a dining area and served meals up top. 

During the return trip I sat in the rear of the dome car and from the curved back windows watched the track racing away into darkness. Occasionally I would puff away on my pipe when the lounge area was deserted. My mind wandered aimlessly as I stared out.

“A smoldering, half-smoked cigarette has been left in the ash tray.” Holmes pointed out after making a cursory inspection of the immediate area.

“Is this a clue?” Watson asked.

“No.” Holmes answered quickly, having already dismissed the cigarette as irrelevant.

“What makes you so certain?” Watson challenged.

“Left by a woman, you will observe smudges of lipstick on the end.” Holmes pointed out.

“Ah yes, but what if our quarry is not alone?” Watson suggested.

“The young lady who left this here was quite alone.” Holmes replied.

“How do you know?” Watson questioned.

“We passed her only moments ago but you most likely looked at her rather than observe her. She was wearing the same shade of lipstick, slightly smudged as if by…” Holmes started to explain.

“A cigarette against the lips.” Watson interjected.

“Exactly.” Holmes stated, almost sounding like a teacher who had been explaining the solution of a problem to a student.

A yell came from the galley, abruptly awakening me from my daydream. “What? Another murder?” I asked aloud mindlessly.

“No. Cook fried some fingers on the griddle.” The Amtrak steward replied, having heard my silly question.

A half-smoked cigarette in the ash tray on the empty adjacent table was still smoldering, and sure enough traces of lipstick were visible, but I couldn’t recall who may have been sitting there moments earlier.

After 41 days without mail the strike ended and Canada’s postal services resumed. Two weeks later I made my final trip to Seattle to close the mailbox and hopefully, to find a letter or two from Phi Bang.

Occasionally I would mindlessly stare out the window late at night to watch for Amtrak’s Pacific International arriving in Vancouver. My northward facing livingroom window provided me with an unobstructed view across a sea of city lights. The railway tracks were about a quarter of a mile away and also visible from my vantage point. The high point in some of my days was nothing more than simply watching Amtrak’s only passenger train to Vancouver being turned on the wye and then backed into CNR’s Main Street Station.

I turned and looked at the picture of Phi Bang that was standing on my table and wondered, “Phi Bang, did our few days together mean anything to you? Do you care about me? Do ever think about me? Do you know I’m here waiting for you?”

Weeks of almost non-stop Vancouver liquid sunshine and fog were depressing.

I had been hoping, almost expecting, that Phi Bang would write to me more often following our tragically short time together in Pittsburgh. Instead, our time together seemed to have produced the opposite result. As Christmas approached, all that I could think about was going back to Pittsburgh to see Phi Bang. A lack of money made travel impossible to be anything more than an impossible dream. 

Facing financial uncertainty because my employment with Canadian Pacific was soon to be terminated was bad enough, but when Phi Bang just stopped writing, I became distraught. Right down to the last day before Christmas I kept desperately hoping a letter or even just a card would arrive from Phi Bang. Nothing came. No war embargo or postal strike to blame this time.

"Why did she just stop writing without any explanation?" I often pleaded aloud, sometimes begging God for an instant answer but more often demanding what I thought should have been a sensible explanation.

During the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day I finally received a card and letter from Phi Bang. Carefully wrapped inside was a single photograph of Phi Bang. She was wearing a thick dark brown coat, light blue jeans and black, almost knee-high boots. In a snow storm Phi Bang was frolicking in the open area near elderly evergreen trees. I knew that was the first snow she had ever seen or experienced. I should have been happy to receive the photograph but my heart ached with pangs of disappointment. That first snow of winter was a moment that I had secretly and silently dreamed about and had hoped to share with Phi Bang. Now that special moment could never happen. The magic of experiencing the first snow together could never be repeated and never be shared. 

While I quietly and longingly looked at this latest photograph of Phi Bang, I could sense that all I had hoped for, dreamed for, lived for and for a brief time believed was going to be mine, was slipping away beyond my grasp. Not one single thing could I do about what was happening. Phi Bang did not need to be tied down and held back by me. She did not need me in her life. If she also knew it, she would not tell me. Phi Bang may not have wanted to hurt my feelings but her silence of far fewer letters caused a sadness and pain that would not go away and which, at times was almost unbearable.

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. Did the person who penned this phrase ever think that the silly ditty could describe an oriental in Pittsburgh and an occidental in Vancouver? Maybe he did, knowing only too well. Gently placing Phi Bang's photo on the table, I closed my eyes for a few moments to recall some of the happy moments we had shared together. For an instant I thought I heard her voice again, but only the silence of an empty apartment echoed the soundless longings of my hopes and dreams for the approaching new year.

1976 was a year like no other. At least to me it was. As with most years, 1976 started out quietly and I was looking ahead with optimistic anticipation. In spite of receiving fewer letters from Phi Bang, my desire and ambition for 1976 was to see Phi Bang again. Such was my New Year's resolution. Together again was all that I could think about. Occasionally I wondered if Phi Bang would grow weary from repeatedly reading the same hopes and wishes that I wrote about and shared with her in my letters.

The first surprise of 1976 was not long in coming and of course Fate would have to dictate that tribulation would occur on one miserably stormy wet January west coast evening. Upon arriving at home after another day of uncertainty at work that had again been rife with rumours of more job reductions, I was surprised to find an envelope in the mailbox. The letter was from Phi Bang and I was elated because she had finally written to me after several weeks of silence.

My moment of happiness was short lived. Phi Bang had sent me a goodbye card. Inside was a short one-sentence note which read, "My dear love, now a time to say good bye."

No reason, no excuse, nothing at all. Phi Bang's unexpected and unexplained message left me in a bewildered state of shock. In seconds she had shattered what remained of my hopes and dreams.

"Why this? Why now? Why?" I repeatedly asked myself and demanded of God.

Distraught, I was hoping that some answer would spring to mind explaining everything so that Phi Bang’s card would make sense to me. No answer of enlightenment sprang to mind and no amount of trying to rationally analyze events yielded any possible explanations. Nothing made sense. Equally baffling was the postmark because her card had been mailed from Cleveland, Tennessee. Phi Bang did, however, provide me with a return address in Cleveland. At least I could write to her and try to find out what her meaning was behind the card.

Finally I was forced to admit to myself that there was no chance at all that Phi Bang was going to come to Canada and join me in Vancouver. I never wanted to willingly let go and give up all hope, but at least for the foreseeable future, no hope of any possibility existed. 

Matthew was determined that he wanted to live in a house rather than an apartment but he was unable to afford to rent a house on his own. Several times he had asked me to consider renting a house together, sharing the rent and other living expenses. My apartment on West Broadway had proven to be too expensive as well as too large for only one person. Following several discussions and calculating that sharing a house was going to cost me considerably less, I accepted Matthew's proposal. 

Ending evenings frustrating, almost futile searching, we managed to snag a reasonably priced house for rent. My new dwelling was an older wooden structure on East Sixth Avenue, around the corner from Nanaimo Street. Although smaller, the house was not all that different in style from the building that I had lived in on West First Avenue.

Moving day was the last Saturday of February and almost everything that I owned was packed into eight cardboard cartons. My only other possessions were the stereo, couch, table and chair, the latter three having been other people's used and unwanted cast-offs. While waiting for Matthew to arrive with the truck, I pensively puffed away on my pipe and stared at my inventory. The bottom line sum of my first twenty-one years of life in this world added up to virtually nothing.

"No wonder I'm alone. I'm not worth anything to anyone." I concluded dismally.

On the first Friday evening after moving into my new quarters, I made what I thought was a long overdue trip downtown to Granville Street to visit my favourite shops. Making a final stop at the music store, I purchased the small Yamaha upright piano that I had long wanted but so far had refused to buy. Purchasing the piano was not an easy decision because it was necessary to use the money that I had saved to bring Phi Bang to Canada. 

Perhaps she would never come to Canada. That possibility was too bleak to even think about so I convinced myself I was only waiting for Phi Bang to change her mind. Self-delusion is like a wonderfully uplifting dream and then awakening from it, pleasing and painless until the dream is over.

Throughout the following weeks Phi Bang did not write to me. Playing the piano and working on several new piano compositions became the outlet for my frustration. I wrote fewer letters to Phi Bang and instead began sending her copies of the pages of music I was writing. Well aware that Phi Bang did not know anything about music I was hoping to appeal to her curiosity. Passing weeks with no word at all from Phi Bang proved my effort to be a futile waste of time.

Travelling with CP Rail and visiting Banff had become my Easter tradition since moving to Vancouver. Easter 1976 was no exception. Within the hour following quitting time from work, I was rolling eastward on "The Canadian" and beginning another relaxing railway journey across beautiful British Columbia. Throughout my rail odyssey I felt pangs of disappointment mixed with twinges of bitterness. Six months earlier I had been so very certain I would be making this year's CP Rail travel adventure together with Phi Bang. During those few months of last summer and autumn, I dreamed about this trip and planned for it because I was so absolutely sure of it. Phi Bang obviously had other plans and again I would dine alone in the dining car.

Upon returning to my East Sixth Avenue dwelling Easter Sunday morning, I instinctively searched the mailbox beside the doorway hoping to find some word from Phi Bang patiently waiting for my return to Vancouver. The mailbox was empty. Matthew was away for the weekend and the house was silent. After tossing my backpack on top of the chair in my room, I wearily slumped down on the bench in front of the piano. First mindlessly staring at the keyboard for a few moments I then reached forward for the pipe tin that was now kept on top of the piano. Also on top of the piano was the photograph May Lien had taken of Phi Bang and me standing together outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. While the photograph captured one of our brief happy moments of togetherness and kept us permanently together, reality was that a continent separated us and I was not happy. 

Removing the tobacco pouch from my pocket, I stuffed a generous helping of those aromatic leaf shreds into the bowl of my favourite bent pipe. In minutes the upper half of the living room was filled with pungent blue-gray tobacco smoke but I still did not feel like playing the piano. The silence of an empty house was depressing so I fiddled with the keyboard just to produce some noise. Unexpectedly, ideas for a new musical work flowed into my thoughts. Quickly scribbling notes on to a fresh sheet of music paper, I commenced sketching what would become the opening motif for the first movement of the F minor piano sonata. Oh yes! Phi Bang had inspired me to compose several new musical works but her silence was not the type of inspiration desired.

For my mid June vacation week I had been hoping to visit Phi Bang in Pittsburgh, however, she was still in Cleveland, Tennessee. Instead I travelled to Montreal to visit my parents and also to make a long overdue visit to my grandparents who were still residing in the Megantic Mountain region of Quebec. 

My long dreamed-about return to Quebec's Appalachian highlands was not the happy reunion that I had been expecting. My grandparents' health had markedly declined during my three-year absence. Even though I had been warned in advance that my grandmother's arthritic condition had worsened, I was disheartened to watch her struggle to descend the stairway backward on all fours like a child. Worse, no words would ease the shock when I first realized that my grandfather truly had no idea at all who I was or why I was intruding in his home. He regarded me with suspicion and treated me like an unwanted outsider.

My grandfather was in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, although at the time, the hated disease was not called by its now well-known name. All that doctors could offer were suggestions that his memory loss could have been caused by one or more small strokes. Regardless, the medical experts warned us that my grandfather's lost memory was never going to return and his life would never be the way it was before. The one thing that the medical experts neglected to tell us was that our lives would never be the same either.

After returning to Vancouver I plunged into music composition at a frenetic pace that occupied most of my waking hours outside of work. The first and second movements of the F minor piano sonata were hammered out to completion during the summer months. Many more hours were also spent rewriting the entire orchestral arrangement for the exposition of the opening movement of the E major piano concerto. Dissatisfied with the revisions to orchestral arrangements of the piano concerto, the work was shelved. Breaking away from completing the F minor piano sonata, an entire, albeit short, three-movement piano sonata in C minor was quickly composed and completely written out on paper in its final form.

Following her early July return to Pittsburgh, Phi Bang resumed writing to me. Since January she had been attending Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee. During those six months she had been struggling to adapt to her new life in America, working to improve her English and studying to obtain the better education she desired. She had also been trying to cope with the stresses and loneliness of college life and being separated from her family. Phi Bang's letters were shorter and at times I felt as if her thoughts were elsewhere.

One Saturday morning I awoke a few minutes before 03:00 and was unable to fall asleep again. While thinking about Phi Bang and wondering about whether or not we would ever have a future together, because I desperately wanted to believe we would have a future together, the reality of our present relationship was far from reassuring. After another half-hour of fitful, sleepless tossing I decided to get up and go out for a walk. The predawn morning air was unusually warm and humid for Vancouver and not conducive for a meditative long walk. I quickly travelled around the block and returned home and went back to bed. 

At 04:30 and still unable to go back to sleep I arose and finally telephoned Phi Bang. I needed to hear her voice again and wanted also to tell her how I felt about our relationship.

"Why you call so early on Saturday?" Phi Bang asked.

"I was afraid you would be gone if I waited any longer to call." I replied.

"This Saturday! Go out at later time." She commented.

"I haven't received very many letters from you." I pinpointed.

"Yes, I know. Very busy and not have time to write." she admitted, betraying no hint of emotion.

"I just wanted to make sure that everything’s all right." I explained, hoping Phi Bang would tell me that a letter was on the way.

"Now just tired and not want to write." She answered.

Wanting to tell her that I needed to receive word from her, that I wanted to receive her letters, that I craved some reassurance from her that she did think about me, I remained silent and said nothing, afraid to be forthright and reveal my feelings and concerns. 

Phi Bang had not mentioned anything in her letters about her plans for the summer so I questioned, "What are you doing during the summer?"

"In summer months must work to help family. Earn money for university. Very expensive to study and live at dormitory. Also, I must try study English more. English study to help me when I return in September." Phi Bang continued.

"Are you going to Cleveland again?" I asked.

"Yes. Scholarship also for another year but English is too much problem for me." She indicated.

"Phi Bang, your English is not bad after only one year in North America." I replied. 

Her spoken English had definitely improved since last October.

"Yes, I know, but to write, my English very bad for university. My dear, do you think any more about study for you?" she asked.

"No, not really." I admitted awkwardly, knowing this was not the answer she would want to hear.

"Very important to have proper education. Study will help much for you to have success at your work." She continued emphatically.

"I haven't thought any more about it." I replied. 

No amount of further education was going to help me with my situation work. All that counted at the West Pender Street terminal was seniority. I lacked that asset just as much as I lacked completed education beyond high school.

"My dear, you must think again about study." Phi Bang urged.

"Phi Bang, I’ve been busy with music. During these last few months I’ve written several new piano compositions." I mentioned, feeling like I was giving excuses rather than revealing accomplishments.

"Yes, I know. You send me music pages in letter. I not understand how is to hear." Phi Bang said.

"Then perhaps I can play the piano again for you." I suggested, hoping that maybe she would ask me to visit her in Pittsburgh.

"Yes, I wait, but I not understand your music." Phi Bang replied.

"I was in Montreal last month and was hoping you'd be in Pittsburgh at that time. Montreal's not that far away from Pittsburgh compared with Vancouver." I pointed out like a stale-dated hint.

"Yes. I have postcard letter you send to me." She confirmed.

"I don't know when my next vacation period will be... perhaps in October. I’m at the bottom of the seniority list so I have to choose from whatever time is left over." I explained.

"You not come now. Another time will be for visit." Phi Bang answered.

"Next time tell me earlier about when I can visit again. I need a certain amount of lead time to arrange things." I said.

"Yes, I know." She said.

"Will you write to me once in a while?" I asked, probably sounding as if I was begging.

"Yes, I write when is a time for writing. Many thoughts and feelings in my heart but I not find correct words in English to explain for you." She replied.

"Just write in the way you have always done before. Your English doesn’t have to be perfect." I suggested, almost pleading with her to write to me more often than she was.

"Yes, I know." Phi Bang replied in her enigmatic way of either not understanding what I was saying or just not wanting to say no while meaning no.

After hanging up the telephone I felt even less certain about our future together than before calling Phi Bang. Drifting apart was depressing to ponder and I did not want to admit to myself what my feelings may have been telling me anyway.

Experts claim that history repeats itself, but does it?

I do not know, but if so, is the reason because we do not learn from our previous mistakes?

No. I do not think so. Events that have occurred in the past have absolutely no bearing on what will happen next. A person can study and analyze all the history in the world and then go ahead and do the next thing wrong anyway; making the same mistakes that others have made.

Several weeks had elapsed since my last telephone call to Phi Bang and as the close of August neared she had not replied to any of my letters. Upset and distraught by her silence I sent a typewritten letter to her. In a departure from my usual staid manner, I wrote an angry letter, venting all my frustration at her silence. That was the only time I had ever sent Phi Bang a typewritten letter and also the first time that I had ever displayed any displeasure toward her.

Phi Bang did respond to my typed letter. Two letters arrived together on the same day. Still annoyed with her, I returned both letters to her unopened. Again Phi Bang sent me another letter. Rather than foolishly return her letter, I decided to open and read it. Afterward I wanted to weep.



This letter is coming not to tell you that I will come to you again. As you write in typing letter...I never get mad at you. The time for you and for me is over. I don't feel sorry. My heart is so cold now. Of course, we had already too much many things to remember, to miss, to tell, to write.

Lover can be a customer, an enemy, or closer is a friend to remember who for you to ask yourself when the silence comes. I cannot claim you at all because of me. I was trying to be silent to realize, and the shared time to learn more, some more "sad love story." Maybe you are not the person God chose for me. Or I am not a person God chose for you. Always you are my very good friend...a friend for me to study how is coldness. Now I know and remember so clearly.

I would not want you to be sorrowful person. I don't want you stop at one point. Your life still is so long and so beautiful. You will meet a complete person, a wonderful person to share with you.

My dear, please give me back promises in two last letters. If I received this letter three days ago, those two letters will not come to you. All is my fault. I become so cold quickly. I do not expect you to write to me again. Everything you said becoming so serious. This is not the last letter to you. Maybe sometime I should ask your health and to be happy to know that you have the person to share with you. That is my wish for you.

The words good-bye or vins biet or sayonara or adieu or adios is so short but it makes people feel so long. I just think the words to tell you for this time, but no words. They flew away so far from me, so I repeat again your words, "good-bye to love, good-bye to the passed days. My dear, I don't hide you that I will remember you. Your name makes me need so badly for time. Everything is gone. Gone with time, with wind, with rain pour into the ground. You can see the grasses remain fresh meaning the early, lovely passed time of our love. Always with you best luck, best wishes and keep smiling.

                                    Love, 


Yes, my typewritten angry letter had attracted Phi Bang's attention and yes, my thoughtless action had hurt her. No, I did not derive any feeling of having been justified. Instead, I felt like a fool, a very remorseful fool.

In that moment of anger two weeks earlier I had probably thrown away the one thing I had wanted more than anything else to keep and I despised myself for my foolish fit of temper. Recalling Phi Bang's words from our last minutes together in Pittsburgh tortured me, "My dear, do not tell me promise about a time to return."

"Phi Bang, I am so very sorry." I silently and remorsefully answered many times. Being sorry did not change anything.

Fearing that my written outburst of anger had finished what may have remained of our tenuous relationship, I wrote a letter of apology to Phi Bang and tried to explain to her that my feelings and hopes for the future, our future, had not changed.

"Will she ever write to me again?" I silently wondered in anguish as I dropped the letter into the mailbox.

In the subsequent days I repeatedly read and pondered Phi Bang's letter. Her English may not have been perfect but her meaning was unmistakably clear. Many deliberately buried unwanted memories of anguish from years passed surfaced with a vengeance to haunt me because Phi Bang's words had been almost identical in meaning to another letter I had received years earlier from my only other girl friend, "You will find someone else someday."

Desperately wishing for today to be yesterday, I wanted nothing to do with the no-guarantee uncertainties of a future time yet to be which may never be. I did not want to hear or have to think about some unknown someone else in some unknown somewhere else on some unknown someday. Wondering who could ever take Phi Bang's place, I concluded it was impossible there could ever be anyone else.

Couple relationships are between two different individuals and not between different cultures. Differences between cultures do not matter very much, if at all, because emotions and feelings are the same irregardless of cultural differences. Love, hate, joy, sorrow, compassion, indifference, anticipation, dread, beginning, ending, understanding, misunderstanding, Vietnamese, Canadian, woman, man. Pain is pain. I could do nothing but wait, wonder, hope, and pray that she would eventually forgive me.

By mid September my decision to move back to Montreal was final. My employment situation continued to be unstable and after repeatedly being laid-off and then called back, I handed in my resignation letter to Mr. Douglas. He said was sorry that I was leaving CP but he understood my reasons and wished me well.

At home later that evening I wrote to Phi Bang to inform her about my pending return to eastern Canada. I also gave her the new address. Would she care? Would she be interested? Would she want to know why? No response at all came from Phi Bang.

On the fifteenth of October, Matthew drove me downtown to CP Rail's pillared passenger terminal at the foot of Granville Street, the same portal through which I had first arrived in Vancouver almost three years earlier. Exiting Vancouver the same way might have been another inherited innate highland trait that dictated my having to leave through the same doorway that I had entered, more likely though, the reason was my love of travelling on CP Rail's trains. 

Matthew and I quietly exchanged a few last words, said our farewells and then my time came to descend the stairs to the waiting train. Silently I said my final good-bye to Vancouver and boarded CP Rail's venerable stainless steel streamliner. The city of Vancouver never knew me. Maybe I never really knew the city of Vancouver. 

Moments later I commenced the return journey eastward to Montreal and thus closed the book on my three years of living alone on the west coast. That part of my life was over, gone and seemed as if those three years of experiences had never been. Perhaps a few people would notice my absence. I was vain enough to hope so but in a few days no one would notice and no one would care. Three years earlier I had set out to make my mark on the world and instead, the world had made its marks on me.

A day later, CP Rail's Train 2 was more than a hundred miles east of Calgary. That same day later I was restless with nagging doubts about my decision to return east. Repeatedly I was asking myself if returning east was the right thing to do. I had no answer and no way of knowing the answer. Are doubts nothing more than rhetorical questions?

After finishing its eastward climb out of the South Saskatchewan River valley from Medicine Hat, The Canadian was soon knocking off mile after mile in forty-five seconds. From up in the dome car I watched the roofs of the leading passenger cars bounce and sway back and forth in a syncopated rhythm. A succession of green block signals approached, finally flickering to red when the head end of the train passed by the one-eyed railway sentinels. To the rear, daylight was quickly fading to dark orange against a wall of black on the southwestern horizon and last glimmers of daylight reflected off the rows of wires strung from pole to pole. Occasionally the lead engine would blast out a mournful warning for road crossings that appeared to be nothing more than two rut tractor trails disappearing across the open plains. Although witnessed eastward at a hurried eastward pace, Saskatchewan's twilight was peaceful and soothing. This was CP Rail's version of an autumn prairie sunset. 

Upon entering the almost full dining car, I was quickly seated by the steward. Facing backward, I shared the table with a middle-aged couple. As miles were clicked off and dinner progressed conversation followed. My table-mates were Americans who were part of a group of undertakers travelling home eastward via Toronto. The group had been attending a trade-related convention in Seattle. The Americans remarked that they had heard about CP Rail's latest concerted efforts to discontinue the Canadian and they wanted to travel across Canada before the train was consigned into history. I was tempted to ask if they had been called in by CP Rail to make arrangements but decided not to say anything.

"Are you people preparing a funeral for this train when the C.P.R. finally kills it?" someone else finally asked. I managed to stifle a laugh.

In three days and on time too, CP Rail's famous streamliner safely returned me to Quebec, province of my birth; that very same Quebec which always seemed to be politically out of step with the rest of Canada. That same Quebec I loved to hate and equally hated to love. That Quebec I hated to admit I was born in and that same Quebec I always wished I could love and live in. That Quebec I always wanted to call home even though knowing I would never be able to feel as if Quebec was my home. Such was the curse of being non-French and born in Quebec. Regardless of my feelings for Quebec, I was home again and, much to my chagrin, learned that Quebec was facing an election.

In November the Parti Quebecois unexpectedly won power. "Le Parti" celebrated and Canada suffered the severe political hangover. Many hours were spent pondering and agonizing over my badly timed decision to return east, which I feared would prove to be an awful mistake. 

The timing of my return home was awkward; awkward for me, awkward for my parents and awkward for my grandparents. Unable to properly look after themselves on their own, my grandparents had only weeks earlier moved into my parents’ home to wait for their call to move into the Wales Home in Richmond. My grandmother could barely walk and my grandfather no longer had any idea who any of us were. The world my grandparents had known for so many years had been quickly torn away from them and their lives turned upside down because of time’s relentless passage. My parents, suddenly burdened with having to care for elderly parents, found their lives to be a severe state of chaos caused by unending demands. Perhaps I was more fortunate because my life was simply a sea of directionless unfathomable confusion. With all of us together under one roof, predictable frustration and almost unbearable stress was usually the order of the day for everyone. I simply did not understand the significance and finality of the changes that were occurring.

In late November Mom and I travelled to my grandparents’ home for the last time. The house was soon going to be sold. I had always dreamed about buying the house and had long desired and expected to return to live in the Megantic Mountain region in my later years. But the timing of events was completely wrong and I could not afford to buy their home to keep it in the family. The world of a gentler, simpler time that I longed to return to was almost gone and the little of that age which remained was quickly slipping away beyond my grasp before I was ready to let go.

From the tattered cardboard box that my grandfather always kept beside the mantle clock on the shelf in the kitchen, I removed the 1950's Canadian Pacific Railway schedule he had stashed away in there and placed the schedule in my coat pocket. As a child I would on occasions ask my grandfather if I could read through that schedule. He always said yes. All but one of the trains listed in the schedule had long since passed away into railway history years earlier and the one passenger train still passing through town did not even stop. On that last day in the house I wondered why my grandfather had kept that railway schedule all those years. Maybe he had been saving the timetable to give to me as an heirloom but I had no way of knowing. 

Afterward, I picked up the rocking chair that my grandmother had always parked beside the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Beside the stove had always been a warm place to sit and was one of my favourite places, but that day, there was no fire in the stove or any heat in the house. Mom had at one time mentioned that the rocking chair had come from her grandmother's grandmother. Regardless of its age or history in our family, the rocking chair had always been comfortable to sit in and ponder life. Carefully, I placed the rocking chair on to the back seat of the car to take home with me to Montreal.

Quietly I walked alone out to the barn. The last three winters had been hard on the aging wooden post and beam structure. The entire building was now skewed out of plumb and the doors would no longer open or close properly. As I looked at the forlorn empty stalls I recalled that probably ten years had passed since my grandfather had sold off the last of his cows. I walked over and peeked into the manger. It was still half full of hay. As a child I would often look in the mangers and wonder why God would choose to have Jesus born in a barn and placed in a feed trough. I still wonder why. 

For the last time I climbed up into the hayloft. It was empty. It too had been empty for years. For a few uninterrupted moments I wistfully remembered many happy times, now long gone, when Ted and I used to play up here for hours at a time jumping and somersaulting in the hay. When Ted and I reached our early teens we hid up here and learned to smoke. Although we had been very careful, it was probably a wonder we did not set the barn on fire. I recalled other happy days of my youth; a time when living was far less complicated and life's troubles were rarely anything worse than waiting for the school year to end so Ted and I could return here for another summer.

My mother was just as confused about the changes going on as I was but I failed to recognize that fact at the time. Selfishly, I was too preoccupied with my own suffering through the unwanted changes thrust upon me. My grandparents had spent more than fifty years of their lives together living in this house. For me this home had always been a happy place to visit. Truly a sanctuary to return to and a quiet place where life still made sense even if the rest of the world did not make any sense everywhere else. Now, all traces of my grandparents’ lives together were quickly and quietly being swept away by the unrelenting passing of time, as if my grandparents no longer mattered to God and as if my grandparents never were.

"My God, I beg You for answers and Your reply is nothing but silence. I didn't ask for my world to be turned upside down. I didn’t ask for this turmoil. You're just thrusting these changes on me and I don't want them." I angrily complained. 

Upset and confused I finally cried out, "God, what is the purpose of life?"

If God replied to me that day, then I did not hear Him. The only response I heard were the bitter November winds moaning and whistling through the cracks between the boards.

In early December Phi Bang sent me a Christmas card with a short letter. She acknowledged my move back to eastern Canada and mentioned that she would be returning home to Pittsburgh for her Christmas holiday break. She also promised to write to me again later. While grateful to have received her response, I was not certain whether or not Phi Bang had forgiven me for that typewritten letter.

Pausing from writing, I stared at the photograph of the two of us together and daydreamed about spending Christmas with Phi Bang. Visiting Pittsburgh could not have been anything more than a dream because I did not have the money to go. Nonetheless, I mentioned my daydream to Phi Bang hoping that she might ask me to visit her.

Yes, 1976 was a year like no other and I was not going to be sorry to see the end of it.


The Oddblock Station Agent

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