I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself on move-in day of university. I was equal parts tired, nervous and excited.
I picked up my welcome week kit from an upper-year student in the cafeteria of my new home. I was proud of the answer I gave the girl in the yellow shirt when she asked how to spell my name.
“Well, it’s like honkin’, but with a D at the beginning!” I explained.
She stared blankly at me. I didn’t get a smile let alone a laugh. She didn’t get it. I had to break it down for her, spell it out letter by letter.
All I can remember at that moment is hoping university wouldn’t be filled with a lot of really serious people. I didn’t grow up with any serious people and given the year I’d just had, they were the last people I wanted to be around.
My grandfather, Jack Donkin, grew up in working class west Saint John but built a life on the other side of the bridge in the city’s south end.
His mother died after childbirth, leaving him and his siblings to live in an orphanage for part of their lives. His oldest sister, Barbie, who looked just like a Barbie doll, my grandfather said, also died around this time. That’s all he ever told us about the orphanage. But the stories he shared with me were never tragic.
He had a lot to complain about but he never did. That didn’t change when he got sick around 1996 and soon had to stop coaching.
Instead, he spent his energy teasing the entire staff of the Saint John Regional Hospital. I think he knew all of the nurses by name. Papa read the newspaper cover to cover each day. He always saved the funnies in the paper for me, even once I grew old enough to be more interested in the news. I wish he had been alive to see my byline in his morning paper.
The waiting room outside of the Regional Hospital’s intensive care unit is the most boring place on the planet. I don’t remember there being a TV and if there were magazines, I don’t think they were very good ones. There definitely weren’t any newspaper comics.
My family spent a lot of time here in the summer of 2007. We could have spent an entire summer waiting for the inevitable and wearing lots of black. We could have spent 11 years like that. Instead, we amused ourselves and made fun of hospital toilet paper, which is roughly equivalent to cardboard. My uncles managed to sneak a roll of it into my mother’s purse once.
My grandmother, a diabetic and devout Catholic, always took her insulin in the chapel, a process we called shooting up in the church. We shared this phrase with any doctor or nurse asking where she was at any given time. You can only imagine the reactions we got from the people we didn’t know.
Papa died on the night of Dec. 2, right before the first big snowfall of the year. It was bloody cold and St. John the Baptist church is like an ice rink in winter. As we marched solemnly into the church, I almost took the procession out like dominoes when I slipped. I grabbed on to my Uncle Jeff and yelled, “Jesus!” without giving thought to being in a church. My grandmother was mortified but we laughed it off and it killed the tension. A few hours after Papa’s funeral was opening night.
I was in my high school’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, a foolish play, a comedy of errors. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to go on stage. At the funeral reception, I sat at a table with Uncle Jeff and two close family friends. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know I laughed harder than I had in a long time. It helped me get in the mood to act. But I think it helped in other ways too.
Everyone deals with loss in a different way. For my family, we cope with humour. I know my heart wasn’t in my performance that night. But it was where Papa would have wanted me to be. Papa always told me that if you can’t have a good laugh, you might as well give up. That night, when I stepped on stage, in the face of losing my best friend, I chose to laugh.