This story began about a year ago with a phone call. It was John [not his real name] a fellow I’ve known for many years, from the neighbourhood. I see him at Safeway once in a while. Nice guy. We small-talked a bit, as one does on the telephone. Then, he said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’ve moved to XYZ Funeral Services”.

I’d forgotten that John was in the funeral business. “Oh really?” I said, wondering if he was about to pitch a pre-paid funeral group pac for me and all my loved ones. “XYZ handled my Dad’s arrangements,” I said, conversationally. 

“He’s right here in front of me,” says John.

And he was. Not my Dad, but the ashes Dad had become, in a plastic bag in a square cardboard box with a white label stuck to it with Dad’s name and the date of his death and the date of his cremation.

The real beginning of this story was four and half years before that telephone call.

The morning after my Dad died, I pulled out his old brown briefcase and opened it on the kitchen counter. He had files in there for most possibilities, including and perhaps especially his death. He hadn’t intended to die on this occasion, but he had prepared for it. He and Mom belonged to the Memorial Society – an organization, according to their website, “dedicated to simplicity, dignity and economy in preplanned funerals”. A lifetime membership costs twenty bucks. The Society aims to help people avoid the excesses of the grief industry. In my Dad’s death file was a checklist drafted by the Society. Dad had checked the appropriate boxes. There are certain funeral homes, endorsed by the Society, whose employees are instructed to simply sit and take instructions, rather than try to push the loved ones to buy from among the exciting array of products and services available.  

According to the checklist, Dad had declined most of the bells and whistles of a big send-off.

Armed with the form, my Mom, my sister and I went to XYZ and answered the Society-prescribed questions with the Dad-prescribed answers. 

All the arrangements, including the cremation? It came to thirteen hundred bucks. Dad would have been very pleased. He loved a bargain and would certainly have enjoyed being one. 

For some reason, Dad had indicated on the checklist that the funeral home was to deal with the ashes – sometimes goofily referred to as “cremains” [which, for some reason, always makes me think of dried cranberries]. There is a lot of goofy language in the funeral bizz.

This was the only issue on which the funeral home guy pressed us a bit, to make sure. 

We didn’t want the ashes?Didn’t want to deal with them ourselves? 

I suppose Dad thought he’d spare us the cost of an urn. Maybe he wanted to avoid the possibility that we might be tempted to have a grave or a vault or something. Maybe it was just an oversight. We’ll never know. 

We were on auto pilot at that point and so we simply reiterated the instruction: You deal with the ashes, Mr. Funeral Guy. As we were doing it, it seemed a little unsatisfying to me. But, you know, the day after your father dies, nothing in this world seems right or satisfying or anything other than just fucking awful, so we moved on. 

We had a memorial service in Swift Current a few days later. The absence of the ashes didn’t affect that. I never really thought much about the ashes after that. I never second guessed our decision. I generally don’t fuss about things I can’t change.I certainly didn’t think we’d denied ourselves “closure”. I hate that word.Closure. As if. There certainly wasn’t any particular act or gesture, ritual or symbol that was going to ease me gently into the rest of my life, make me wipe my brow and say, “Whew. Well, I’m glad all that death stuff is over.”

That spring, Mom bought a bench. A substantial, cement and stone thing offered as a fundraising effort by the Friends of Cypress Hills. It weighs about eight hundred pounds and is set on a cement foundation. She had it placed on the Highland Trail, under some spruce trees, overlooking the beaver dam and off over the hills. It faces southeast. This would be “Dad’s Bench” 

We discussed what would be inscribed on the plaque. All the best suggestions were too “inside” – wouldn’t be understood by the casual hiker who didn’t know Dad or us. My brother’s favourite idea for an inscription was “You’d be more comfortable over there.” This was an expression Dad originally used whenever he would find someone sitting on the living room couch when he wanted to lie down. Dad liked a nap. He’d say, “You’d be more comfortable over there.” The expression became a family favourite; to be used whenever you wanted someone to move from the place you wanted to be. We all imagined a hiker coming across the only bench on the trail and being told “You’d be more comfortable over there”. Funny. Being funny would be the most fitting tribute to Dad, even if the humour was appreciated only in his inner circle. 

We opted for “Sit and enjoy one of Bill Macnab’s favourite views”.When I sit on that bench and look out on the view from it I imagine my Dad looking out and enjoying it and I have a good feeling about him and about his life and how much he enjoyed things like this. For a moment, I become him. He’s not gone; he’s in me, in the experiences we shared and can still share. 

So, the bench served very much the function of a grave site, as well as a pilgrimage. Dad’s Bench. Trips to Cypress Hills now include a hike out to the Bench and a quiet moment looking out over the view. And, we always think about changing the plaque to read “You’d be more comfortable over there.”   

Back to John, the funeral guy. He told me that they really aren’t supposed to just “deal with” ashes without some written authorization or something – some detail that hadn’t been taken care of. Or paid for. I told John to keep them while I consulted. It was a bit of a shock, after four and a half years. 

I worried that this would upset Mom. After a few weeks of dithering, I called my sister. She sounded a little annoyed that the funeral home hadn’t done what we told them to do. We agreed that we would think about this. No more dithering. We were now thinking. 

We have a rule in our family that we don’t hide things from each other. It’s a rule that arose, I think, because of the time one of our relatives decided not to tell another one about the death of a third because the first person was sure that the second really couldn’t afford to travel to the funeral. Best that she miss it. This passes for reasonable thinking in my family. 

Whatever its origin, the “no hiding things” rule is a good rule. Much better than the “save money – even other people’s money – at all costs” rule. Though, if you can follow both rules, all the better.

You want to be confident when you’re talking to a loved one, and maybe especially when you’re not talking, that anything you would want to know is not being withheld from you – for your own good.  When a loved one says “I’m fine” it should mean just that, and not “I’m fine, the hospice staff is keeping me comfortable.” We’re not worriers in my family, but when there actually is something to worry about, we want to know. 

So, I knew I was going to have to tell Mom about these ashes. It’s the sort of thing she’d want to know. Though she seemed quite confident four years earlier that she didn’t need the ashes, this was an opportunity to rethink that.It was a second chance.Productive second-guessing. 

My sister and I never got past the “thinking” stage on the ashes issue. Months passed. I didn’t tell Mom, though I had not made a decision NOT to tell her.  I would tell her. That’s the rule. I just hadn’t done it yet. No real hurry. The ashes weren’t going anywhere. That was the issue, I suppose. John the friendly funeral parlour guy called every few weeks. I assured him a decision was imminent. Every time.

Summer came and passed and Labour Day weekend arrived. My family tries to get together at Mom’s place in Cypress Hills on the long weekend. I decided I should bring this matter to a head. I called John, told him I’d pick up the ashes. I did. Put them in the trunk of the car. 

Almost the whole family was out there that weekend. There were two missing:  my sister’s daughter, and my youngest, number three [not his real name].

Saturday morning, wife number two and I were having coffee with Mom at the kitchen table. I couldn’t think of any delicate way to get at this, so I just blurted it out. “I’ve got Dad’s ashes in the trunk.” This threw her back a bit, but she recovered very quickly. Normally, Mom wants to know the whys and wherefores of things and I expected a lot of questions for which I’d have no answers. She didn’t. “We’ll spread them behind the Bench.” 

And so we did.

The trail where the Bench sits is a large long loop going along one side of the creek and around a large reservoir created by a beaver dam, then crossing the creek and coming back on the other side. One side of the trail, the shaded side, flooded badly that spring and was still muddy and essentially impassable, so we’d have to get out to the bench and back on the sunny side.It was a cold day, but not windy and so fairly warm in the sun. I carried the square box of ashes in the complimentary XYZ reusable bag – suitable for hauling groceries. We didn’t talk much on the way out to the Bench. 

We crossed the creek to the shady side where the Bench sits. Still not talking very much. What to do? We hadn’t decided on a plan for this. “Decided”? We hadn’t even talked about it. Mom suggested we get started. I took the plastic bag of ashes out of the box. My brother had a jackknife. I took the knife and went behind the bench, motioned for Mom to follow me. I cut a hole in the bag and let the ashes drain out while I walked a wide circle in the brush back of the Bench. Mom followed me, except in a spot where I had to step over a shrub.I circled back and shook out the last bits right behind the Bench. I worried that we’d left an obvious mess. I looked behind and there was little sign of what we’d done. Some grey dust on some leaves, the rest pretty well absorbed by the underbrush, grass and soil. 

There was a surprising flood of emotion, which took all of us, and which I won’t describe.

It lasted a while.

Mom asked if anybody had anything “profound” to say. Nope. Because I never like to let a silence last for long, however, I did speak up and say what I had been thinking about that whole weekend. 

We had reached the point as a family where we could talk about Dad again, in a way that felt natural, not painful.  For so long, it hurt to think about him and it was hard to talk about him. And each of us could see that talk about Dad hurt the others. We avoided him. Always the life of the party while alive, he’d become a real downer since his death. But I had noticed that weekend that we were referring to him frequently and telling stories that included him and laughing about what he’d do or say about particular things. He was a casual presence in our weekend.  It was like we’d let him back in our lives, we no longer had this dark absence in our family.

That is not closure. That is a reopening.   

My sister then announced that we were going to stay there at the Bench and talk until we all cheered up.

So, we told stories.

After a while, we were all laughing and feeling good for having cried together – for finally facing the biggest loss of our lives without averting our eyes. 

When I got home to Regina, I wrote a note to John at XYZ Funeral Services, telling him what we’d done and thanking him for the gift of this opportunity to fashion a unique ritual for ourselves – this chance to honour Dad’s life finally freed of the shock of his death.

John wrote back, reminding me that what I’d done was illegal and that I shouldn’t tell anybody about it.

Cute Cat Video

Go to the YouTube. Type in “cat”. You will discover that the internet is not about porn at all; it is about cat videos.

Sarah Stodola, a blogging HuffPost contributor [see: My Experiment to Get Rich From Making Viral Cat Videos], tells us that there are about 2.3 million cat videos on the YouTube. It would take between eight and nine years to watch them all. While you’re watching, they’ll probably make more. You could spend the rest of your life watching cat videos without ever seeing one twice.

And people watch them. Millions of people. Millions and millions. Ms. Stodola notes that videos of Maru, the cute cat sensation from Japan, have been viewed some 143 million times. Scroll through the YouTube menu and you’ll see that it is not unusual for a cat video to have ten to twenty millions views.

People love them. All the videos score over 98% “like”. We should all be so well liked. You might ask: Who are the two percent who could watch a cat video and not like it?

Cat videos?

Yes. Cat videos.

These videos don’t have good production values. They’re often shot with cell phones and tossed directly on YouTube. No sound track, minimal editing, bad light, lousy definition, zero attention to composition.  Loved by millions.

Meanwhile, serious web content producers – like me – attract the attention of thirty or so people on a really good day – tops. I know, I know: a lot of people out there say, “Oh yes, I’ll get to Ross’s blog, but first I have to watch this cute cat video.” Then, five hours later, they go to bed, dream of cute cats.

Well. I need something to boost my spirits. I crave that “cat video” level of popularity. I was sure that publishing a “Lose Weight Fast” post would bring in millions of readers to this site and I would bask in the love that those big numbers must surely represent. Nope. All I get is the same few family members and close friends clicking in from time to time. And, I only get them because they’re afraid they’ll see me on the street or in a restaurant or at Safeway. They can’t look me in the eye if they haven’t read my latest blog post. I survive entirely on “pity views” –  a web-technical expression I made up just now. If only I could attract more pity.

Enough. I’m breaking into this cute cat business. However. I don’t do video. I don’t even do photographs. I type. Then I click “Publish” and my typing magically appears on the internet. I have to adapt the cute cat genre to my technical limitations.

Today, I am publishing a “cute cat narrative” – for people who love cute cats, but also love to read. If this new genre is even half as popular as the cat video, I’m in big business.

My cute cat story would have made a good video for the YouTube, had there been the YouTube, or the internet, back when this occurred.

Unlike most of those videos, animals were actually harmed in the making of this story.

It’s about Herman. Remember that name. He’s about to go viral. Herman was a transsexual amputee.

When wife number one [not her real name] and I got together, she had a cat, Sparky – a grumpy black and white. Sparky was very lonely at home while we were at work all day every day. An unhappy cat makes everyone unhappy. We decided he needed a companion. We got Herman from the Toronto humane society shelter. He was a very cute little striped, brown-nosed guy. We decided, after some research, that he had a little Abyssinian in him. He was exotic, though very cute.

So – a cute cat. Check. We’re half-way there. Now, he just has to do something cute, I guess.

Sparky, for reasons I don’t recall, had been declawed. It happened before I arrived on the scene. Just the front claws, of course. So, we decided that Herman would also be declawed. Sparky was ornery. He was going to hit Herman. It wouldn’t be fair if Herman could scratch back.

Okay, before all you anti-declawing zealots start after me, I am fully aware that this is a sensitive “animal cruelty” issue and that I’m likely to join Micheal Vick in the PETA Hall of Shame. But, you know, both Sparky and Herman lived long happy lives without front claws. They both defended themselves very well against their clawed neighbours. The only down side I noticed was that they couldn’t climb trees very well. They’d jump up, expecting to cling to  the tree, but only their back feet would catch on. They never figured it out. I wish I’d taken some video.

This was a long time ago. I haven’t declawed a cat in thirty years. Get over it. I have.

Herman was declawed at the same time he was neutered. Unfortunately for Herman, his paw got infected and he had to have one of his fingers amputated. He didn’t notice. He also didn’t seem to notice he’d lost his nuts. Cats are funny that way.

Later, both Herman and Sparky would get periodic bouts of cystitis – a painful condition where the urine gets crystals in it and urination becomes painful. Sparky used to let us know he was having a spell of it by pissing on something we valued.

Cute so far, eh?

We were moving. We sent Sparky and Herman to live with my in-laws for a time. While there, Herman had a cystitis episode, so my in-laws took him to the vet. The vet recommended surgery, probably because he was a veterinary surgeon. You should always be wary of advice you get from a surgeon. The surgery that helps a cat with cystitis involves removing the penis. It’s expensive. My in-laws couldn’t get hold of us – this was before cell phones. They went ahead an okayed the surgery. And paid for it. Say hello to Dickless Herman. Once again, he didn’t notice anything was missing.

That is the last bit of disfiguring surgery in this cute cat story.

Months later, the first winter after the surgery, we noticed that there was pee on the floor beside the litter box. What’s that about? The litter was clean. We’d never had this problem before.

I conducted a stakeout of the litter box. I was a law student. I had a lot of free time.

From my hiding spot, I watched Herman get in the litter box and squat, ready to relieve himself. Cats with penises pee down and forward. Herman peed straight out the back, over the side of the litter box. Herman had no idea. Dickless and witless.

We put the litter box in a corner and built up two sides of it with plastic garbage bags. We created a sort of litter closet. Herman figured it out.

Sadly, I lost Herman in the divorce. Despite his early health problems, and his habit of falling out of trees, he lived into his late teens – very elderly in cat years.

Cute? Or what?

My numbers will now soar to heretofore unimagined heights – with a 99% “like” rate. You may expect that, the next time you look at this site, it will be festooned with lucrative advertising. I’m rich.


People prefer stories about my profane and cleverly disrespectful boys and my dysfunctional and injurious personal life over those blog posts in which I attempt to deepen readers’ understanding of important social and political issues. I am, it seems, more appealing as a hapless incompetent than as a smug, snarky know-it-all. In my last post, for example, I sort of suggested that anyone who did not agree with me is an asshole. In my family stories, on the other hand, I’m the asshole. People far prefer to laugh at an asshole than to be one. [That’s the last bit of profanity for this one, Mom. Promise.]

It has also been pointed out to me that length matters. Shorter is better. It’s the internet, after all. There’s a lot of material to get through. People are busy. What makes me think that I deserve so much time and attention? Arrogance? Emotional neediness?

Whatever. Today, we’ll take a break. No long, angry essay.  Something short and light. Let’s get back to Ross’s badly-parented offspring, and back to the elementary school a block and a half from our house.

I ought to have seen something coming. Our youngest, Boy Number 3 [not his real name], was in grade seven. He had received a snazzy cell phone for Christmas. I don’t know why. Why does a twelve/thirteen year-old need a cell phone? His older brothers, One and Two [not their real names], had phones because I needed to keep track of them. Yes, I know, these phones really only gave me easy access to being lied to — “Yeah, I’m on my way home, I’m just waiting for a ride. Go to sleep. I’ll lock the door when I get in.” — but it is a comforting relief to hear one’s lying kid’s voice late at night and to know that one’s lying kid is safe and sound though not coming home any time soon. A grade seven kid is like a house cat; he doesn’t wander far or for long. If I needed to talk to him, I could just yell.

Everybody else in the family had a phone. Number 3 had to have a phone, or things would not be “fair”. Kids do not believe that different circumstances justify different treatment. They have a keen sense of justice and are painfully aware of parents’ tendency towards wanton unfairness. So he got a phone, which he used to call his two or three friends who also had dumb parents.

Number 3 came home from school one day, outraged at the Arts teacher. She had, contrary to international law and common sense, decreed that all phones be silent during her class. Worse, she actually confiscated the phones of those who dared defy her crazy rule. Can you believe that? Our dull reaction to his outrage confirmed yet again his conviction that his parents will always side with the school authorities over their own flesh and blood in these matters. There was no point talking to us. Dad and Mom: Stupid and Disloyal.

A few weeks later, I was talking to our long-suffering Principal about something, I forget what. At the end of our conversation, she asked me, “Do you want these phones back?”


So this is what happened.

I must pause here to emphasize – this is a true story. It’s not one of those stories about which one might say “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Yes, you could. But, if it were a made-up story, it wouldn’t be very interesting. This story is only worth telling because it is true. True.

At the beginning of Arts class one afternoon, in accordance with The Plan, one of Number 3’s buddies, who sat at the back of the classroom, surreptitiously dialed our boy’s number. Number 3’s phone rang. [Of course it didn’t ring. Phones don’t ‘ring’ anymore. His phone emitted some foul rap music: a carefully chosen “ring tone” demonstrating his badassedness.] The ArtsEd dictator raised an eyebrow and prepared to implement enforcement measures. My guy made a big production about answering the call – “Oh, I’ve got it. Just a second. I have to take this call”. He pulled from his pocket, not his phone, but an old dead cell phone that had been in our kitchen junk drawer. On cue, his real phone stopped rapping. He pretended to start a conversation on this dead phone. Ms. Artsy marched over and demanded he hand it over, the phone-snatching tyrant. He complied with mock resignation.

Then, he pulled from his other pocket a second dead old cell phone that had been lying about the house, and he pretended to compose a text message on it. This phone was also taken, to his phony dismay.

Next, he reached into his desk and pulled out a cordless phone that had been decommissioned at our house after it had lost one of its batteries upon being hurled in righteous anger. We kept it around, just in case the battery ever turned up, which it hasn’t. He pretended to resume the conversation, apologizing to the imaginary caller for the interruption. Madam Tyrannical nabbed that one too.

Then, finally, he pulled from his desk an old land-line telephone, the coiled phone jack cord  hanging from it. He put the receiver to his ear and pretended to get back to the call, twirling the cord absently with his finger while he talked. The fourth phone was taken into custody.

I have tried to instill in my boys respect for duly constituted authority. I have failed.  Still. I think he earned an Arts credit for this.