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Immigrant stories

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End of a Dream Even as he did his evening chores on his small subsistence farm in Midwestern Alberta, the old man lived more in his dreams and memories than in the present. Presently, he was putting some oats in front of the horses as he tied them up in the barn for the night, but he was thinking of himself as a young man back in his village in the Old Country where he was known as Mighty Mike. In those days he could lift two sacks of flour at the mill, one in each hand, place them on his broad shoulders and walk home with them.

Now lifting half a sack of oats took effort. He who had been independent all his life had come to admit that he needed help. At other times the thought had filled him with a sense of hopelessness, but today was going to be different. Hope and help could be arriving this evening. He put his eye to the hole in the wall of the stable where a large knot had fallen out of a plank, and looked over to the hillside for a telling cloud of dust that would herald an approaching vehicle, but there was no dust. The sky was a deep blue and the hillside shone with the underside of poplar leaves that fluttered in the light breeze. Their sparkle against the backdrop of the dark green of the pines invited his eyes to linger until a not-so gentle nudge on his rear jarred him out of the scene. He turned around. The black horse was looking at him expectantly, waiting. “Well, what do you want?” He asked, smiling. He knew very well what the horse wanted, but still he wanted the stallion to respond. The horse bared its teeth and answered with a toothy whinny, shaking its mane. Mike gestured towards the oats. The horse looked at the oats and shook his mane again. His velvety lips were vibrating softly, showing only the tips of its yellowed teeth. Then they were looking at each other anew, each one still waiting. Finally the horse stretched his long neck out of the stall and nudged the old man’s pocket. Mike laughed. This is what he was waiting for. “Ha so, you want your sugar, ha?” He reached into the pocket the horse was nuzzling at and brought out two lumps of sugar, offering them to the horse on his outstretched palm. The animal took the sugar from his hand with a delicate touch, ate them with apparent appreciation, then nudged his pocket again. “That’s all you are going to get!” Mike said. But as the horse insisted he turned his pocket inside out to show the animal that there was no more. Finally, the stallion turned away and joined the mare at oats, and Mike walked out of the stable, stepping into the hay barn. He looked at the hay stacked up half way to the rafters with concern. This would not last the long winter, he knew. Each of the previous years he has been able to do less and less, and now it has come to this: he who had provided for his horses all his life could not bring in enough hay. He would have to buy a lot of expensive feed before the winter was over. Still, he looked at the hay he had with appreciation, and opened his nostrils wide like his stallion would have, to let the smell of hay fill his being. He fervently hoped life would always go on on his farm. And he hoped never to be separated from his land. He just needed a little help, help that could be on its way now… Had not one of his daughters just written to say that she was bringing the man she was going to marry to the farm to see him? This daughter, he knew, never shirked from a challenge. He pinned all his remaining hopes on her. For if he had a daughter who might not marry a city man it would be this one. She grew up on the farm, and she knew how to work. And she would always feel at home here. With her looking after the house and a young man at his side, they could turn things around here in no time! With a young handy man as his son-in-law they could live together for a while in his house, while they fixed up the second house he bought and had had brought here from a nearby settlement. The young couple could live there after that. . . He stopped. Like always, thinking about that house jarred him from his dreams. His wife was still living with him when they picked out that house from the many that had become available when the mine closed down, and most of the people drifted away to the city. They had hoped that the house would attract one of the children to live there and be of support for their old age, and carry on the farm. But now she too was living in the city where all the children were, herself a patient in an extended care hospital. She was too frail ever to return to a life on a farm, Mike knew. And yet how carefully had they chosen that house! It had been a very attractive house with plenty of room. He was still working on a good foundation for it when he returned from a visit from the hospital after an overnight stay in the city and found it had been vandalized. Some youth had broken into the abandoned house while he was away, had a wild party, and thrashed the house inside and out. To Mike, it was an incomprehensible act. He could never understand it, and he could never come to grips with it. He found the many empty and broken bottles and the rusty crowbar the vandals must have found along the railway tracks that had been used to smash the doors and, pockmark all the walls with holes. There was not a single gyprock left untouched, room after room; no window was left unbroken, no floor left without gaping holes through which one could look right into the basement. Each of those holes were like a hole in his own heart. The policemen came and took away the crowbar, said something about the difficulty to prove anything without witnesses, even if fingerprints were to be found. Later, he himself had seen a gang of youth hanging around outside the highway gas station store, drinking. Mike did not know any of them. He wagged his accusing fingers at them, but they just laughed. He could still hear their taunting catcalls as he walked away. The police did nothing. No arrests were ever made. But he could not forget his humiliation. He tried to put the house out of his mind. He never looked at it, and he did not even think about it for some time now – until today. Carefully he bolted the door of the barn and put a padlock on it, then turned to look at his land. In spite of everything he loved his land fiercely. Just looking at his land filled him with a sense of satisfaction nothing else came close to. It made all his sacrifices, all those years of working in the coal mine, even his contracting silicosis seem all worth while. He only needed someone to pass the farm on to when he died. Mike walked across the deep furrow that now separated his house from the barn which the river had cut in preparation of its future bed. One of his sons had drowned in a river, and he never went to the river after that. Yet the river had been his friend long before it had become his enemy, and he had many pleasant memories associated with the water as well. A river, he knew, could help bring life to the land. The small river was gentle and peaceful most of the time. However in the spring it was swelled with the snow melt in the mountains and raged with terrible power. The pilings he had built to contain it were washed away, and last year’s flood took one of the barns. His neighbor’s cottage across the river has been already destroyed. Its remains sat askew atop a bed of gravel and weeds, its ribs bleached white as bones. It was a daily reminder of what might happen to his own. He usually averted the sight, but today he looked at it with defiance. With help he could fortify the bank, and he could save his land from being washed away. He would not let his house to come to a fate like that! He remembered that in his youth he had seen the men of his village working together repairing the dikes, guarding their land. They saved that land from the river for centuries. It could be done. He just needed help. That was all. He just needed a little help. Help that he hoped would now come at last. He walked into the house and made his dinner. It was dusk when he sat down to eat it. Looking out the window he saw a doe and its young raiding his garden. He lingered a little, watching them, for he was very fond of all animals. He never hunted. Then he got up and went outside, waving his arms in the air, shouting at the deer. The doe looked at him with liquid eyes and resumed her grazing. Mike went back to the house and came out with a rifle. The deer did not move. It took repeated shots into the air before the doe and its young ambled out of the garden and reached the edge of the forest. Even there the doe turned and looked back at the old man before she disappeared into the forest. There was no mistaking of her disgust and annoyance. Mike walked back into the house and carefully bolted the door behind him. He was smiling. This was a nightly ritual he enjoyed. He pulled out a drawer filled with odds and ends, and searched until he found an eyedropper. It had been well used. Its glass was cloudy with a dirty rubber end, but it worked. He was trying to melt the wax in his ears, because he wanted to be able to hear the dog bark at night. So now he drew some warm water from an old pot on the stove and dropped a few drops into each of his ears, then wiped them with the Kleenex tissue he found lying crumpled on the table. He dropped the Kleenex, now smooth and wet, on top of the coal in the coal bin. Next, he reloaded the rifle, and leaned it against the wall by his bed in the bedroom. Then he picked up the old schoolbook he had acquired when the school closed down. His place in the book was marked by the letter his daughter wrote, announcing her coming with her fiancee. He rechecked the time and the date. The date was today’s, but the time was well past. He didn’t hold out much hope of them coming today and felt tempted to drink a glass of wine, but refrained, just in case. He did not want to make a bad impression. He also thought of tidying up the place a bit, but it was too dark and too late to start. Still, he delayed going to bed. He did not hear the dog bark, but he did hear the rap on the door. Taking the rifle in his hand he stood behind the door and yelled, “Who is it?!” Only when he recognized his daughter’s voice did he open the door. The young man with his daughter was a city boy, he could tell at a glance. He had a tie on and was wearing a tweed jacket with light colored pants. On his feet were a pair of soft leather shoes. Only a city boy would wear something like that to visit a farm. Seeing the puzzled look he gave the rifle in his hand, Mike grinned and said: “I have been doing my exercises, see?” And, holding the rifle by the end of its barrel he lifted it up at the end of his outstretched arm and held it horizontally for almost a minute. “Can you do that?” The young man could not, but he tried, with wrist bent and arm quaking. No, this one would not be of much use on a farm. But Mike appreciated that he tried. He was a city boy, but he was all right. Later, from his daughter, he learned that he was an educated man, a school teacher. Well, at least his daughter will be all right. Mike respected learning. If his daughter was going to marry a city boy, he felt proud she will marry an educated man. But Mike himself was too old now for learning. He had a good mind when he was young and did his best to learn when he was at school, but he only finished the first six grades himself. Then he hired out as a boy and worked on the land. He knew he could never hope to own land in the old country, that was why he emigrated. He was grateful to Canada for his land, and proud of the country for all the land it possessed. But he did not talk of the land during the visit and he did not take the young man to the vandalized house even when he asked about it. What would have been the point? At least she will do well by him, he kept telling himself, and he by her. She will look after him all right, and look after him well. How quickly she managed to tidy up the place, and what good meal she cooked. No, his daughter could look after anything, she knew how to work. But she too had changed, he noted, she too became like city folk, always in a hurry. And sure enough, like all the children who have come to visit, his visitors, too, seemed to be in a rush to get back to the city. Before he knew it, this visit was over as well. Sadly, he watched them go. Even when their car crested the hill and was out of sight, he still lingered and waved until the last whiff of the dust they left behind settled and the air was clear again. The sun shone brightly as he walked back to the house. He watched as the horses, now loose in the meadow, rolled themselves in the deep grass in unison, as if responding to a signal. They were rejoicing in life, he saw. The meadow larks which seemed to have been silent during the visit also resumed their chirping and singing. He stopped and watched them for a while. Mike went into the house and poured himself a glass of wine. Wine had become his solace since he felt his land slip away. In his old country life revolved around the land for centuries. Land was valued, cherished, revered. It was a source of wealth, a source of life itself He pondered. Here was this great country with all the land, and nobody cared about the land. And without help he could not save his land. It was incomprehensible. It was sheer madness. He raised six children, three of them strong, healthy boys. Yet there was no one to carry on his work. Well, at least he dreamed, and he tried. He emptied his glass. On other days he would have been finding some chore to do, but now he lingered a while. Soon his memories began to flow before him, uninterrupted and clear like the river. When dusk came the doe appeared again with its young. He did not chase them away. Instead, he walked over to the river, and for the first time in many years, sat down on its bank. The eagle in the sky that had been circling earlier, was now gone. His deep sigh mingled with the cooling air and, unbeknown to him, his tears flowed into the river. Greatness can walk in Humble Shoes The first time Tom heard of the man who was to have such an influence on his life was the day his nine-year old came home from school, choking back her tears, visibly upset. Without a word, he held out his arms. Whatever the problem – explanations could wait. For now, his daughter needed to be comforted. Only when the sobbing subsided to an occasional sniffle and her grip loosened on his mid-section did he inquire what has happened. “Oh Dad, Sam is leaving the school!” The sobbing started anew. He waited again for a while but had to ask: “Who is Sam?!” “The school custodian.” “The janitor is leaving and you are upset,” he said in an even tone, trying not to be judgmental, but not satisfied with the answer, and still needing an explanation. “But Dad, you don’t understand – it’s Sam!” “All right, tell me about Sam.” “He is a very nice man. He cares about us. When we are sad he notices it and comes and talks to us until he makes us smile… He always has gum or candy in his pockets, and he knows what kinds we each like. Sometimes, at recess, he even plays with us!” She chuckled. “He is so funny! Dad, close your eyes! . .. I mean it, close your eyes!” “Okay, I’ve got my eyes closed.” “Now imagine a sumo wrestler playing hopscotch!” He did, and his lips curled into an involuntary smile. She was watching his lips. “Now, do you understand?!… Everybody likes Sam. We will all be sad when he leaves. And we will all miss him.” She was heading out the door to play, but she came back and gave her dad an affectionate hug. “He is sort of like you,” she said, and went outside where her friends were already waiting. Tom chuckled to himself as he took out the marking he had brought home with him. Tom taught the Intermediate grades in an elementary school and loved children, but to have himself compared to a custodian seemed like an ironic compliment to him. Ha! He was “sort of like Sam” indeed! Still, his mind filed away the incident, then forgot about it until he was prompted to recall it again by the same daughter, by now a teenager. Tom had been telling his wife over the dinner table about a workshop he had given to a group of teachers at another school, excusing his lack of appetite by explaining that he was still full from the lunch they had been served. That lunch was supposed to have been a potluck affair, with the staff providing the presenters with some simple fare, but the custodian of the school overwhelmed the table with such an assortment of Japanese gourmet dishes the likes of which could not be expected to be found in the best restaurants. “That must have been Sam,” his daughter said, “he likes food like you do!” And she eyed her father’s gathering middle-aged spread with undisguised glee. “Remember the nice janitor I cried over when he left?.. I sure do! How is Sam?!” “Well,” he said, looking down his mid-section, “if you can judge by appearances, he is doing even better than I do!” “Oh no!” She said with mock horror, “Poor Sam!…” Indeed by the time their paths crossed again, this time both working at the same school, Sam did not look well at all. Yet to the students he was the same Sam his daughter described. His pockets were still bulging with candy and gum, and he was every child’s friend and confidante. Problems the students could not tell their parents and teachers became communicable to these very people after a conference with Sam. Sam’s advice was always the same: “Say what you think and tell how you feel.” As a member of the same staff Tom found Sam easy to work with. If he needed a small favor, his wish was granted swiftly with a smile and the inevitable question: “Is there anything else I may do for you?” Tom asked for little because he could see that Sam was not well. Like the students, he found himself talking to Sam a lot. He soon discovered that Sam was not only a superb cook, he was an expert gardener as well. In fact his chief love was gardening. He pruned all his neighbor’s trees regularly free of charge, year after year. Once he planted an entire orchard as a favor for a neighbor. He dug every hole by hand. Still, Sam seemed to be an ordinary man, with few traits that Tom could identify as unusual. One of these was Sam’s other-centeredness. Tom noticed that Sam always put others in front of himself. Another was that one did not touch Sam if one did not mean to insult him. He was a most gentle and mannered man, but he suffered no indignities to his person. He always treated others respectfully and expected to be treated the same by everyone. But his most conspicuous trait was that he was always optimistic, always upbeat. This became tragically apparent when Sam was diagnosed with cancer. He had great faith in his doctors and in chemotherapy. But the disease was soon ravaging his body. Tom could see that at a glance. Sam was losing a lot of weight, and before long he was hospitalized. Tom’s own aversion to hospitals was so strong that he almost left visiting Sam too late. The evening before he was to visit eventually, Sam’s family had been told that Sam would not make it through the night. They took his personal belongings, along with his wallet and his glasses when they went home that night. But overnight Sam’s kidneys began functioning again. When Tom stepped into Sam’s hospital room the following morning he found Sam and another visitor looking for Sam’s glasses and wallet. Sam’s appearance jolted Tom. Sam looked deathly ill. He was in obvious pain. Still, he smiled and insisted that Tom and his visitor take the two available chairs while he himself sat on the edge of the bed in visible discomfort. Tom cut his visit short. There was not much he could say or do. The following day, he learned, Sam died. As a schoolteacher Tom had always been devoted to children and did all he could for them. He had exceptional rapport with his students. Like Sam, he took a personal interest in the welfare of children and he was sensitive to their feelings and noted even small changes in their behavior. It was never beneath him to ask for help if he felt he could not reach a child. So soon after he recognized Sam’s effectiveness with children he began to refer to Sam problem children he felt he could not reach. He was new at this school, Sam was not. His reputation was yet to be established, Sam’s was already well known. In this way he soon came to regard Sam not as the janitor he was, but as a colleague with whom he could work for children effectively. He actually felt complemented when Sam began to refer kids to him. Tom had been well acquainted with educational research supporting the effectiveness of positive reinforcement, but watching Sam he realized he was not using it nearly enough. Soon his own desk contained bags of candies earmarked for small rewards. Much to their delight and appreciation, Tom’s students often became surprised recipients as they made intelligent responses to questions, handed in quality work, or simply anticipated his lessons and had their books at the ready. The effect on his class, he noted, was enormous. He became a better teacher because of Sam. The impact of the news of Sam’s death on the students was anticipated by the school administration. A team of emergency counselors were brought in to console disconsolate children. They stayed for days. Tearful children were excused from classes to see the counselors. Troubled children, especially, were mourning the loss of their true friend. But all had been affected, and for a while the tone of the whole school changed. children were walking in the hallways quietly with subdued faces, and cast disapproving glances on the playground in the direction of those engaged in boisterous play. It took weeks before the school settled down again. But Sam was never to be forgotten. The “Citizen of the Year Award” was named after Sam, and it became the most meaningful and coveted award in the eyes of the students for years. Ever since he was a child, Tom had been fascinated with greatness. As a child he read about the Greek and Roman heroes, and as a young adult he made the biographies of great men his staple reading material. As he matured he became more critical of the great men he read about. He began to reject those who caused great suffering and loss to others as being “great men.” He could never accept a Hitler or a Stalin as great leaders. And he never thought of looking for greatness in his own back yard. Greatness, to Tom, was something out of reach of ordinary men. So even when Sam astounded him by the depth of his perceptions, he did not think Sam was anything but ordinary. Near Christmas time, during one of their after-school chats as Sam came into his room to collect the garbage, there was a twinkle in Sam’s eyes. “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” He asked. Tom laughed. “Of course not,” he said, “but I suppose you do?!” “I do,” Sam said as his face became serious, “the same way I believe in God.” Seeing the puzzled look on Tom’s face, he continued. “You see, I loved being a child… My parents were wonderful people, and my father … well, he looked like a God to me: loving, protecting, powerful – and this gave me a sense of security and comfort when I needed to be comforted. I was as happy as a clam in a shell. The trouble was they were older parents, and as I was growing up they were growing old. I began to see them as frail human beings with faults. My emotional security, no, my safe shell itself became frail and faulted with them. I needed an all-powerful Heavenly Father for my emotional security to replace my failing real one.” “And intellectually?” Tom asked. “Well of course intellectually too!” Sam replied. “My mind has to make order of my world. I need ‘up’ and ‘down,’ ‘left’ and ‘right,’ ‘large’ and ‘small,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘natural’ as well as ‘supernatural’ to maintain my bearings. My mind, especially, needs order. I love gardening so much because gardening serves me as a comforting reminder that there is order in things and that one man, one single gardener – can make such a difference in the world! Life without God is like Christmas without Santa Claus to me.” The twinkle returned to Sam’s eyes and seemed to illuminate his whole face as he looked at Tom expectantly. “Well,” Tom said, I have always pretended to believe in Santa in front of the children and encouraged all of them to believe, but God looks too much like Santa Claus to me!” “Children see through pretenses,” Sam said, “do you realize you made them wonder about your honesty?!” He weighed the look on Tom’s face for a few seconds then added: “I don’t suppose you did. But it does not matter now, anyhow. I am sure they have forgiven you.” And he picked up the garbage pail and walked out of the room. Tom could not deny that Sam’s funeral was an extraordinary event. He took time off from work and went to the funeral service an hour and a half early. He felt the need to look at Sam one last time to say his silent, personal goodbye. He was glad he went early, because the traffic was unusually heavy. The parking lot was already full, and the surrounding side streets were choked with parked cars and drivers looking hopelessly for a place to park. He had to park several blocks away from the funeral home. At first Tom thought that several events must be taking place. There were two churches in the vicinity of the funeral home as well as a large public building that sometimes housed special events. But everybody seemed to be going where he was headed. The funeral home was housed in a large building with several rooms, designed to accommodate four services simultaneously according to the permanent notice board outside the building. But only Sam’s name was listed. A long queue has already formed outside the building. Tom joined the queue in silent amazement. Inside, he found that all the rooms were already filled, with additional people moving into them, lining up against the walls, filling up the window spaces, taller individuals letting shorter ones stand in front of them. His procession filed slowly past the open coffin in a thick scent of flowers, wound through hallways past several crowded rooms, and exited to the parking lot where makeshift outside speakers have been set up to enable people to hear the eulogies. As he filed past Sam he took a last, close look at the man. The body looked ordinary enough, even small. The face showed the common features of many Japanese men. What struck Tom now was Sam’s changed countenance. As illness melted away his weight, death seemed to have melted away his age. Sam looked like an innocent child. That, he thought, was extraordinary . As Tom inched past the rooms, he had time to survey the people inside. He was surprised to see many prominent people of his town. Several politicians, high-profiled professionals were sitting or standing side by side with apparent blue collar workers. The Japanese community was well represented, but so were other recognizable communities. He noted a large number of his own colleagues there. It was evident that Sam brought together everyone in the town. Tom realized he had to reappraise this man. As Tom was passing another door somebody made room for him and he was able to stand in one of the rooms to hear the eulogies. The service was brief, conducted both in English and in Japanese. The eulogies were telling. A sumo wrestler told of Sam’s accomplishments and gave examples of his sportsmanship and the humble acceptance of his victories. A church member spoke of his inspiring faith. A politician spoke of his lifelong contributions to many aspects of community life. A tearful school principal related what Sam’s friendship has meant to him and Sam’s presence to his school. All noted Sam’s lifelong giving of himself without ever waiting for a return. The final eulogy was given by his physician who spoke of Sam’s courage in dealing with great physical pain and of his giving life to others as an organ donor even as he died. The man who had been giving of himself all his life chose to give himself as his final act. Standing in that room Tom realized he had been wrong about Sam as he had been about greatness. Greatness could walk among us unnoticed; greatness could walk in humble shoes. Tom also realized that he could emulate Sam, that indeed he was already part way there. We all have a potential for greatness, if only we learn to look into ourselves to find it and live to realize it. After the funeral Tom went back to work for the afternoon. He was supposed to be teaching, but he ended up talking about the funeral. All his students knew Sam, and they spent the afternoon sharing their pleasant memories of the man. He told the class that their Sam was truly a great man from whom all of them could learn. He urged his students to look for greatness inside of themselves, so that they may all become better people. When the students left he sat at his desk for a while, until the new janitor came by. He was a friendly, pleasant man, but he was not Sam. Sadly, he went home. When he walked in the door his wife took one look at him and said: “You look like you need a hug, Thomas.” “I do,” he said, “I have been thinking about Sam.” “Who is Sam?” “Our former custodian.” “Thinking about former custodians makes you feel sad,” his wife noted. “Oh, Sweetheart, you don’t understand… It’s not just any custodian, it’s Sam! He was a very nice man. Everybody liked him. And we shall all miss him.” Then his tears began to flow. She held him until his shoulders stopped shaking and his breathing quieted down. Then she said: “Oh, I think I remember Sam now. “He was that nice man you went to visit in the hospital. Oh my God, Thomas, you did not tell me! What happened?! Did Sam die?” “No,” he said thoughtfully, “‘Great men never die.'” And as he uttered those words he felt a great inner peace permeate his soul and radiate to his face, and his lips curved involuntarily into a knowing little smile.

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