A Firefly in a Jar.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

The words of that famous blogger… What was his name?… Ah yes, William Shakespeare.

This was also the closing line of a letter written by my father more than 11 years ago. Long before Cancer became a household name at Chez Combden.

Dad didn’t live by the sword but taught by it for 30 years, swinging a blunt wooden blade around the classroom as he brought Hamlet and MacBeth to life for young, adolescent minds. He quoted the bard more than you can shake a sword at, so it’s no surprise he did so in this letter. But oh, the bittersweet irony of it all…

Mom was leaving to go to Edmonton to visit my brother Glenn, his wife Peggy, and their brand new bundle of blue. Dad wasn’t going, but in mom’s carry-on he sent along a piece of himself: a five-page letter. Not a letter for Glenn or Peggy. A letter for Jack. His first grandchild – a boy – the wee one who would carry on the rare Combden name and the red-hot Barr’d Islands blood.

I didn’t know about the letter until Glenn read it at the funeral home, just a couple days after dad’s death on January 21st, 2010. Two years ago today.

Penned nearly a decade earlier, some of the words were hauntingly prophetic.

October 5th, 2000

Dear Grandson Jack Alexander:

This letter, the first of your life, will come as a complete surprise to you; your mom and dad might be surprised too. You may not pay much attention when your mom reads this to you. You may not understand every word; your language is unique. You will be too busy turning over, sleeping, dreaming of a future not yet defined.

When you are old enough, dad and mom will explain why this message came so early in life. They might attribute the writing to your Grandfather Combden’s multi-dimensional personality or a touch of insanity which has no explanation. Pick your choice, Jack.

I’m extremely elated you are a boy with potential to carry on the Combden name. If you were a girl, I’d be just as joyous. Your two grandmothers might be a tiny bit envious, but your two grandfathers smile with enormous delight and look forward to when you will battle your brother for your father’s golf clubs, car, hockey stick and CDs; we’d roll with laughter if your sister marked the wall with mom’s lipstick, blew powder around the bathroom, flushed a toothbrush, or poured shampoo into the tub. Of course, you can do these things in a year or so. A good grandson is a mischievous grandson.

Right now, it’s your world, Jack. Your show, your stage. You should learn Shakespeare early. “All the world’s a stage.” First lesson.

I heard and saw your first “stage,” with all the gifts. You were not very interested. Your father was hyper. (Just a joke.) Is it true you have red hair, stand 20” tall without socks, and weighed nearly 9 pounds? What a boy! What a grandson! It won’t be long before you are taller than your father, well above your mother. (ha)

Is it true you are drinking your mother’s milk? That’s a good idea. This high quality milk is always the right temperature, costs nothing, the cat can’t get at it, it comes in cute containers, and the supply never dries up. Unlike oil wells.

Before I continue, I want to tell you a little about your grandfather. I’m retired from teaching, still conducts the occasional service, picks berries in season, writes poetry, keeps a journal, and plays golf. Your father has yet to defeat your grandfather (ha.) Also, I’m an active Lion, helps citizens with EI and pension problems. I am considered a philosopher, thinker, walker, rabbit hunter and actor. I get a quarter of moose each year. I have a bottle for you, when your teeth arrive; you’ll like moose. Grandma bottles good moose. P.S. I am probably the most sensible of your relatives, although it might take you a few years to come to a full appreciation of Pop Combden.

Time goes so fast, Jack, my son. Before school is out, you’ll be walking, poking fingers into everything, pulling papers, books, ornaments off tables and low shelves. Watch the steps to the basement; tell dad to put a gate at the top.

Dad told me you attended an Oilers game. You probably slept through the game. I guess the game put half the patrons to sleep.

You’ll be making your first trip to NFLD at Christmas. How nice! I’m waiting to hold you, bounce you, roll, tickle and wrestle. What fun! I will have to be very careful, because your grandfather dropped your dad when he was your age, (I think), but no ill effects were recorded. Did you notice? (ha)

I heard the North Pole is melting. Santa might have to travel by canoe or bike. But Jack Alexander, he always comes, and this year he has extra toys. Someday, he’ll bring you golf clubs, bike, girlfriend, and other things. A sister? But no gift will be greater than yourself, and it is not even Christmas.

Your grandmother Combden will be delivering this letter. Special delivery, Jack. Next fall, Pop will be up. We will go for a short walk, watch the geese flying over, take some pictures, look at picture books (no women), play peek-a-boo, hide and seek, play with your toys. Pop loves toys. I’ll bring a special toy for you, plus my own toys.

You’re getting sleepy now, so I’ll bring this to an end. Pop feels sleepy himself. Must be that Grandfather Feeling.

Keep growing, rolling, turning, drinking, shouting, sleeping. Pop is aware of your mom’s hibernation policy when on holidays (ha). But little Jack can sleep as long as he wishes, and if anyone wakes you up, Pop will throw snowballs at them.

Love and kisses from your Pop Combden

xxxooo

P.S. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” – Romeo and Juliet. Second lesson. Goodnight, Jack.

I shake off that feeling of beautiful sadness and appreciate this letter for what it is: a paper portal into how wonderfully, unforgettably crazy he was. When the memory of him starts to fade — the inevitable desaturation of time — we need only reach for this letter and there he is, his voice plain as day in that beloved scrappy handwriting. As writer Chuck Palahniuk says, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” Mission accomplished, dear old dad. Immortality is yours. And I’m not just talking about this letter.

I sit here among heaps of poetry and prose and sermons written on everything from cue cards and stationary to notebooks and discarded envelopes. A chronological rainbow of paper – from yellowed typewriter onion-skin to sheets of lily white. It took me these last two years just to organize it all. (Coming this spring: Sonnets & Scribblers: The Poetry of Jim Combden.)

And here’s his book. Fogo Island Boy was published in 2009, just six months before his own final chapter was through. I remember him pecking madly away at the computer, determined to finish his story, knowing his diagnosis, hopeful for a cure but taking no chances.

He did it, and he basked in the glory of his realized dream – a book launch at Chapters, a couple sweet paychecks, and some considerable bragging that warranted a few loving eyerolls.

Dad and my son, Max, grandson #3, at his book launch. October 2009

Then kaboom – The End. No more books would be written. No more silly poems. No more letters to future grandsons. A sobering reminder to make your dreams come true before you stop waking up from them.

But it’s the strangest thing for me – to see Fogo Island Boy on the shelf at local bookstores. The book he wrote, but no dad to high five. That’s my dad’s book! My dad – he’s the Fogo Island Boy! I want to shout it out to people all around me, maybe hug someone. He did it! He really did it! I pull the book out from the shelf and reposition it with its cover facing out, smile skyward and walk away, content. His book is still here. That means he is still here.

“The more we write, the less we die.” – Brian Kessler

Dad’s words, nestled inside an ocean-blue cover, are sitting on my coffee table. I reckon that’s the next best thing to the man himself sitting on my couch. I needn’t go farther than my own living room to hear his voice.

The day after he died, Ted Blades of CBC Radio’s On The Go aired a tribute to “Jim Combden from Badger’s Quay” who so often called in to the radio program with thoughtful and intelligent comments on the political happenings of the day. The way he spoke, the words he chose; he was like an “Old Testament Prophet,” Blades said. Dad was always fighting for what he thought was right and just. Always standing up for the little guy – rural Newfoundland. He always had something to say. And he said it fearlessly and well. (Occasionally, it got him in hot water. At a Liberal rally, he called Danny Williams a “fuehrer.” The remark made headlines and even inspired a skit on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.)

“A voice has been stilled,” Blades began. Then, he preempted a reel of dad’s comments with a statement that hits me smack dab in the heart every time: “The voice we’d come to love, and one of the calls that made On The Go richer by their very presence…” Hear full podcast here.

A voice has indeed been stilled. There will be no more new words. But what has already been said — and that’s a heck of a lot — is immortal: in his book, in his poetry, in his radio commentaries. His unique voice is forever captured, like a firefly in a jar, quietly shining its light in the darkness.

Dad with Jack and Sam Combden, grandsons #1 and 2.

28 thoughts on “A Firefly in a Jar.

  1. Beautifully written. So wonderful that the firefly was captured in that jar. And now, by posting this, you’ve set a million fireflies loose on the world.

  2. Sorry for your loss Vicki…from the way you write about you’re Dad it is obvious how much you loved him. Hope today passes easily for you.

  3. With tears brimming, I smile, chuckle, and full-out belly-laugh as I remember your Dad and read the words he wrote to Jack. I remember the sword well. I remember him being the first teacher that made me feel I was a good English student. He often made comments on my paper about the wit that was evident in my writing, something I’m sure he appreciated. And I was always a little bit proud of myself that I was able to impress him with my writing. It was “seal of approval” king of feeling. Thinking of you , and your Dad, and my Dad too, who was always my other “seal of approval”.

    • YOU bring tears to MY eyes, Ms. Wendy. Knowing how much that encouragement and approval meant to you as a young person, you can now pay it forward and inspire all the young minds you teach. One day, those students will be talking so highly of you. I have no doubt.

  4. A man among men and one I was honoured to be acquainted with for many years! He is the godfather of our son, a role he took seriously in Bradley’s formative years, he was always proud of his godsons achievements and I can hear him say after being updated’ yes, I knew he’d do something wonderful’. Thank you Jim for all; the laughs!

    • Yes, I guess Brad turned out alright. I mean, being a brain surgeon is a so-so achievement. He probably could aimed a little higher, but… LOL!!!

    • Apparently this is life. I hear we are all going to die eventually. What’s that all about? I want it to be 1984 again: me and Kel in her bedroom listening to Harem Scarem and Bonnie Tyler and Chicago and writing out all the wrong lyrics.

  5. Very well written Viki.— Tears are hitting my computer as i type . My life has never been the same& never well . Keep his memory alive as i wait for that next book of poems & silly notes. God Bless

  6. A beautiful job Vicki…A lot of wondeful memories of Dad that we will always have, those funny regular phone calls, a poem for evey occasion ,that I just loved..I am so looking foreward to the book of poems in the spring,. I know you will do a great job,which Dad would be so proud..I still have the email (the last one ) that Dad sent before I went to Ontario to be with Michelle , to be with her as she dealt with the dreadful disease of cancer..He always had special words of encouragement…Take care ,love you, thinking of you always…

    • You will be on the VIP list for a book, auntie. That note he sent you before you went to Ontario. That was his way of saying he loved you. He was not one to say those words, but he sure showed it with all the little phone calls and poems and pranks.

  7. Beautiful tribute Vicki. I remember him leaving little notes on the counter if he left for home before Jack & Sam got up or they were gone to school.
    I have the podcast on my computer and MP3 Player and I’ve played it for them. Still brings sadness to my heart when I listen to it. Ah! but I think he has his eye on me and is using his way with words and powers of persuasion on a higher level.
    I know you are enjoying your new life Jim and I’m sure you’re playing on the ideal golf courses promised to those who believe.

  8. You make me wish I’d known the man. I think, though, that as long as you’re writing as well, there’s definitely a bit of him still here :) Wonderful blog! You’re awesome!

  9. This is so beautifully written Vicki…your Dad is definetly beaming with pride at your blog…he was a wonderful Teacher and a very kindhearted man and reading this through teary eyes brought back alot of great memories of my days in his classroom , sword and all! Thanks for that and keep up the wonderful job in your blogging! All the best:)

  10. Vicki, a friend of mine told me a story about your dad that I think will bring a smile. He taught her and this incident happened in her senior year. By the way, she absolutely idolized your dad and became a damn good English teacher as a result of emulating his techniques and attitude. That’s not the story, just tossed it in for filler….like bread pudding, of sorts. Back to the story.

    Her class was writing an exam for a class your Dad taught. All was quiet and your dad was sitting at his desk with his feet crossed on top of it. Leaning back in his chair, he held a news magazine in frront off his face , apparently reading and oblivious to possible cheaters. For my friend, who “got” your dad, this was a hoot in itself because she knew Jim Combden was seldom as he seemed. She concentrated on her exam for another minute but she had to sneak another look. As she studied her model teacher, she saw nothing out of order. Like I said, she “got” your dad, and his feet on the desk was merely a ruse for something greater. She continued staring.

    Then it hit her. She started to giggle and before she could hold it in, a huge gaffaw and a whole slew of belly laughs left her. Her classmates, although not knowing why, started laughing too. Then they followed her finger that rose and fell with each belly laugh and soon saw the cause. They knew Mr. Combden liked to have a laugh. Theyt had seen teacher and fool together many times. That’s fool as in yonder years and weren’t they often one and the same, or close, anyway, there’s that digression again. My friend, in seeking Jim’s little plot, found herself staring into two holes cut stragetically from the magazine. She lostr her control when she saw peeking from these holes, the smiling and impish eyes of Jim Combden. Mr. D move over!

    Maybe we had to be there to understand the laughter, I don’t know. But I can picture him now, staring out through the holes, peeking at a beautiful red haired child who fears little and laughs a lot.

  11. Just found your blog and am loving it (actually laughing out loud at most posts). I have a soft spot for NL having just lived there for four years.

    Your father sounds like an incredible person – and as they say on On The Go, certainly “not indifferent”. I think we could all strive to be “not indifferent”. I’m sorry for your loss.

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