When I was five, I went to visit my grandparents for a weekend. It was my first big overnight trip without my parents, and it felt like a milestone in asserting my individual person- hood outside my little nuclear family unit.
At one point in the weekend, my grandfather (Poppa, or “Pop” as we usually called him) took me for a drive. We stopped at a forested area—I remember it was just at the side of the road—so he could give me a tour of a ravine where leeks grew. He explained what leeks were, detailed their nutritional value, and showed me how to identify them among the other plants in the ravine. To this day, I have no idea why he felt it was nec- essary to give me this lesson, but the visceral fear I felt on the lesson’s conclusion is something I never forgot.
Pop had an instructional, soft-spoken conversational style and a tendency to ramble, so that even when the point of what- ever he was talking about finally came around, we often weren’t entirely sure what he was getting at. The culmination of the leek field lesson was a doozy in Pop-ism History.
“Now that you know this is here, if you ever get lost in the woods, you can just eat the leeks, and you’ll be okay until we come and find you.”
I remember that he was partway up the hill when relaying this little truism, and I was petrified. He was going to forget about me. I was going to get lost in the leek field. I was going to have to dig up leeks to survive like a forest creature and I would never re-enter civilization. The possibility of getting lost in the leek field, or lost anywhere, had never crossed my mind before, and now that it had been suggested I was convinced it was go- ing to happen. I pictured myself lying in a pile of dirty leaves for days until the rescue party came, and I was horrified when I realized that all of Pop’s plant-identifying lessons had left my memory. What if I forgot how to identify the leeks, accidentally ate a poisonous plant, and died? What if I rolled down the ra- vine and couldn’t climb back up? What if I was so buried by dirt and leaves and leeks that Gram and Pop couldn’t recognize me and I became one with the forest floor?
These dark thoughts continued to plague me until meal- time, when my Grandma placed my dinner in front of me and pointed out that the over-boiled vegetable on my plate was one of the offending leeks. I was too scared to eat it.
Pop didn’t mean to send me into an existential crisis ques- tioning the stability of my place in civilized society. He just thought the leek field was a cool place and felt that the survival tips it offered would be useful for me to know. I guess at five years old, I wasn’t ready to accept that survival tips would ever be necessary for me. I had assumed that I would always be safe. What was special about Pop was that he was a protective figure who was unabashedly honest about the fact that he couldn’t pro- tect us from everything, even when it was scary.
He was a guy who triumphed against nature, even when it seemed very unlikely that he would. He was an engineer, a ship- builder employed by the Collingwood shipyard until its even- tual closure. His career required him to design contraptions that allowed people to walk on water. At age 30, kidney disease almost took his life until a transplant bought him some more time. Specialists said he had 15 years maximum, which turned into 30. In the end, it wasn’t even his kidneys that failed, but the wear-and-tear of a lifetime of post-transplant medication that wore down his liver. At the time of his death in 2006, he was the longest-surviving recipient of a kidney transplant in Canada.
He was also one of the first people in Canada to use an at- home dialysis machine as opposed to making regular hospital visits. It wasn’t until years later, after he died, that I learned that the abnormally tall beds we always slept over in at Gram and Pop’s had been the beds he used to be confined to for hours, watching a machine process and clean his blood. I remember I was often scared of how long the fall would be if I rolled out of bed in the night. In retrospect, this in itself is a Pop-ism: the site of what must have been a terrifying, mortality-confronting ex- perience for him turned into the place we slept at night. I would have slept there—or more likely, laid awake for long, painful hours—the night of the infamous leek incident. My Pop built his character on things that were a bit scary, but undeniably he was a person with whom you were at home.
My Pop was a port in a storm. Despite conditioning a ter- rified response to leeks in me at a young age, he was always a rock, even when his health or his job or any number of life’s dan- gers threatened to unseat him. He was a figure who gave quiet lessons in how to find new, innovative, and odd ways to survive, even if you never thought you would have to.
I hope I never get lost in the woods and have to harvest and consume wild vegetables as a means of survival. I hope I never have to struggle with organ failure and the stress of find- ing a transplant. As a kid, these stories scared me. As a (mostly) grown-up person, they still do. But these things happen, and thanks to my Pop, I know I’ll be equipped to handle any poten- tial detours with dignity. I know who I want to imitate and fol- low out of the leek field if I ever need to.
After the funeral, while sharing Pop stories with my siblings and cousins, we circled back to the ultimate symbol of Pop that he instilled in all of us—the Freemason’s crossed compass and square. I knew this symbol before I knew what it meant, be- cause Pop felt it was good for all of us to know. Even now, what it means to me is the definition of a special man. He was always methodical, even if he took a while to get to the point. And, at the heart of all his ambiguous, rambling lessons, Pop was all about pointing us in the right direction if we ever got lost.