Often as I lie down in my bed, pull up the covers, and put out the light, settling in to spend another night alone here in Calgary, Alberta, I yearn to have my husband, Peter, with me again. I yearn not to be alone. But that is an old story, and among people in the last third of their lives, it is anything but unique. But, still, I lie at night and think of the past. I dream of it too — our life on the Great Plains to the east — and when I do, I wake filled with sadness. Once in a while a tiny part of me will for an instant take me over, allowing me to imagine there is a way to regain the past, but then reality returns, and my inner voice says, You know as well as you know anything on earth that he is gone forever. And yet, I am not sure I truly believe it.
I try to visit my husband’s grave at least once a year, sometimes twice a year, although never in winter. When Peter died, I thought that as I wouldn’t be able to keep on living in Saskatchewan, I would be faithful about my twice-yearly visits to his grave for at least the next ten years; after that, my imagination gave up. Some part of me probably thought that in ten years I would most likely be dead myself. When I imagined my own demise I could only think in terms of statistics. I stopped short when it came to the nursing home, the fatal illness, the final suffering, my last, shuddering breath.
When I make my private pilgrimage, I don’t let anyone know I am coming. It takes about seven hours from Calgary, including at least a half hour to get out of the city and another for fuel and bathroom stops, and I need to stay overnight before I make the long drive back. When I start from Calgary I am filled with determination to complete what I see as my duty to Peter (as if he were still alive and monitoring my faithfulness), and I do my best not to think but only to concentrate on the traffic and the road, but all the while some strong emotion is building inside me. I drive the first three predictable hours (farms mostly, or fields of grass, usually pretty heavily grazed, a few head of cattle in the far distance, oil batteries, railway lines) on the high-speed, busy Trans-Canada Highway to Medicine Hat, where I make my usual stop to stretch my legs, buy gas, and buy food to take on the road with me.
Then I continue east, and about an hour after having crossed into Saskatchewan, I turn south toward Maple Creek, go west through the town and onto the secondary highway heading south. Here I am able to go more slowly, as the road narrows and the speed limit drops. Finally, almost no one else is on the road; I can take my time as I drive through the familiar, once much-loved countryside. Now I can no longer fully control the emotions I’ve been keeping at bay. They begin to grow and rise and will soon threaten to overwhelm me.
Something like eighteen miles south of the town, having climbed most of the way, I reach the gate into Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, but for some miles before, I can see the park along the horizon on the western side of the road. It is easily recognizable because in a landscape where most of the year the fields and hills are the pale yellow and buff of cured grass, its high, pine-covered hills, dark blue-black with hints of deep green, stand out. In a country otherwise sparsely treed except for the deciduous ones planted in neat rows by settlers in their farmyards, the attraction of these immensely tall, though thinly limbed, lodgepole pines in a park that is the highest point between the Rockies and Labrador is understandable.
The park rises about 2,000 feet (600 metres) above the high plains, and stretches from Saskatchewan into Alberta. It is treed as a result of the glaciers having spared the highest part; here montane species of plants still grow that occur nowhere else in the province. From sea level, the highest point is in the Alberta portion of the Cypress Hills and is roughly 4,800 feet; in Saskatchewan, it is about 4,500 feet. It’s only when you get to the Lookout on the far west side of the park that you see how high you are.
On these trips I rarely pass by the gate without driving in, and sometimes, if I’ve thought to buy a lunch in Medicine Hat, I may find a picnic table somewhere and eat my sandwiches under the trees, my feet resting on grass instead of a sticky restaurant floor, and my head filled with pine scent and the cool, fresh, welcoming air hinting of the wild. I was born in the forested, lake-dotted country to the north where such vistas are commonplace, and I find these pines a welcome break from the miles of treeless, anonymous country I’ve just come through. I often contemplate how strange it is that I fell so in love with a terrain and ground cover so completely different from the one I was born into and where I first knew life.
I often think that my sisters and I came out of legend. Our childhood in the northern bush is so linked with fear — of the extreme cold and deep snow, of the dark trackless forest all around us, of the Indigenous peoples who had their own ways, who did not speak our language, indeed, who rarely spoke — that I chose as a writer to turn my beginnings into a dark myth. I saw too the paucity of the conditions under which we lived, our mother’s youthful gaiety slowly overtaken by disappointment and anger, our father’s bewildered, helpless retreat.
When I was just school age we left that part of the country forever, moving gradually to larger towns and then to a small city. I tried to forget the wilderness, believing then that people could forget where they began, as if it were merely a mistake. But I know now that our childhoods mark us forever, and that to view such happenings in a life as mere mistakes, as simple bad choices, is in itself a mistake. Where we start life marks us irreparably. More than twenty years later, a marriage, a child, a divorce, and moves across the country and back again behind me, at thirty-six I married Peter and went to his ranch home in Saskatchewan on the high Great Plains of North America to live out the rest of my life. And yet, that archetypal forest I was born into hovered there relentlessly, dark and heavy, in the back of my brain. Cypress Hills Park, then, has seemed only to hint at that forbidding landscape from my childhood.
I sometimes take the time to drive up to the highest point at the Lookout where, in three directions and a few hundred feet below, I see fields and more fields, sprinkled with grazing cattle, mere dark points on the pale aqua, buff, and cream grass, the colours exquisitely softened by distance and haze until at some far-off edgeless place they simply meld into the pale bottom of the sky, become indistinguishable from it. The wind catches you up there, sweeping across miles of prairie and smelling of burning sun and grasses, sage and pine, and flowering bushes. The far-distant world below that I’m scrutinizing is, from this vantage point, fairy-tale beautiful, and it is a wonder to me that the society it supports should sometimes be so unforgiving, so brutal to its dwellers.
Although from where I was in the park I couldn’t see it, a few miles to the east in the wooded hills on the other side of the highway, still part of the Cypress Hills, is the Nekaneet First Nation. It would be many years after I moved to the southwest before I would even set foot on the reserve itself and then it was, briefly, to volunteer at the new Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, a prison for federally sentenced Aboriginal women where I and a number of other farm and ranch women were to provide some “normalcy” in the lives of those women, some of whom had been incarcerated many years, and others who would soon be released to go back into society. I think the idea was that we would remind them of how to be with women out in general society. I also taught a creative writing workshop, where I wound up mostly dealing with the single white woman prisoner there, about whom, after she was released and died of ALS, a film was made. The other prisoner I saw the most of was a Cree woman, one who had collaborated as a co-author in a book about her life. I never thought of them as prisoners, though, but rather as people I knew and liked (both had committed murders, although the white woman would eventually receive a special dispensation and be released early as a victim of severe marital abuse). I would have kept them both as friends had the justice system allowed such a thing, and if one hadn’t died so soon after her release.
It is told that when a site for the lodge was being searched for, a committee of elders was struck, and one of them had a dream telling all of them that this was where it should be built — in the place they called the Thunder Breeding Hills. It is gratifying to think that is how the site was chosen. When I first saw the reserve, appearing as a horizontal white line high in the treed hills miles south of Maple Creek that, as you drew closer, would separate into buildings, it was poor and barely known by most of the local people unless they had land near it. The relationship of the townspeople to the people of the reserve seemed to me then fraught with tension and, to some extent, mutual dislike and mistrust. Then the people of the reserve had their land claims settled, and exciting things started to happen, the building of the healing lodge being only one of them.
Once, these people travelled all over this vast land, without any barriers or park signs or jails, following their ancestral trails. As the settlement era began in the West in the late 1800s, treaties between the European newcomers (many from Eastern Canada and the United States) were signed that drove Indigenous peoples of the plains onto small reserves. Treaty 4, signed in 1874, moved them south of the South Saskatchewan River, to the north, or east of the city of Regina. Only a small band of people led by a man named Nekaneet (or “foremost man”) remained behind in the Cypress Hills, living on game and otherwise making do for many years until in 1913 the government granted them a small reserve in the hills, later expanded. The rewards of signing these treaty documents were laughable, and in the late twentieth century such high-handedness and injustice to the First Nations people were at last addressed in the form of land claims designed to return much of the ancestral lands to the descendants of the original inhabitants. The Nekaneet people didn’t receive the right to be included in the land claims process until 1998.
South I go now, until I come to the gravel road that threads its way east and south to the village of Eastend. With some regret I pass it by. On these drives to visit Peter’s grave, I rarely take that cross-country route, even though it cuts about twenty miles from the already long trip. On my move to the city, I sold our large SUV, opting instead for a more manageable small car, the first vehicle in my entire life that I had bought myself. Inexperienced as I was, I didn’t notice that its clearance was too low to allow me to risk gravel roads, so on these trips to Peter’s grave I usually go around the long way on the paved roads. The drive descends most of the way, the hills rising up on my left or to the east. If you know where to look, you can see cairns and other more enigmatic stone structures made by the First Nations people in past centuries, some of them visible as small protuberances along the skyline.
About forty miles south of Maple Creek, never having left a paved road, I turn east again on the highway into Eastend. In those first years after I moved away, my heart would start to ache as I left Medicine Hat, as I have told you. I would feel as if my chest and throat were filling with dark water, making an aching lump of them. Once I turned to go south at Maple Creek the pain would worsen, the water struggling to erupt from my eyes. When I made that last turn east to start the thirty-five or so miles into Eastend, I would be in full-blown pain, anger tinged equally with bitterness, bitterness that I otherwise kept at bay, but that never failed to overtake me as I neared my husband’s grave. Now the tears are gone, although a residue of pain remains.
Deep in the south country, heading east, on my right and another twenty miles to the south, lies what has been since 1910 or so the vast Butala cattle ranch. I can’t actually see it from that distance, because those many hectares of low rolling hills characteristic of the area intervene. But I know it is there, and think of the many times I had looked out the cracked kitchen window (a window Peter told me his mother had, years earlier, importuned her husband to put in because she felt cut off not being able to see in that direction) and gazed north, imagining trucks driving east or west on this very road. Sometimes, Peter said, on a really clear night, there would be places between the hills where from the ranch, there being not a single dwelling between the kitchen and the road twenty miles to the north, you could see the headlights of a vehicle. I’d seen one myself, that moving light travelling like a tiny spaceship through the darkness below the millions of stars.
This is when the longing I’m experiencing — or maybe it isn’t longing, as I don’t quite allow myself to long — this is when the pain and sorrow I’m experiencing are at their worst.
My emotions are so mixed I hardly know what to make of them myself; I only know they make me feel badly enough to want never to make this trip again. On the one hand, I suffered from extreme loneliness for many years in this country. On the other hand, the beauty of the land, the peace and simplicity of the life, even the roughness, and the doing without (high culture, congenial companions, a bathroom!) taught me a lot. Above all, there was the joy of being someone’s partner in life, someone for whom and from whom there was respect and love. This is the turmoil I experience every single time I make this trip. I suppose Joan Didion would call it grief, but it is, in fact, so much more than that. And who knows what Didion experienced that she chose not to put into The Year of Magical Thinking, her celebrated memoir about the year that began with her husband’s sudden death. Didion is, as Peter was, famously cryptic, famously silent.
A few miles past the place where I turned east, I come to the cattle gate that leads into the provincial pasture, a one-hundred-section area (a section is a mile by a mile), I think the biggest in the province, that borders on the west and the north of what had been the Butala ranch. I can’t see the gate from the road I am on, only the trail off the road; on the other side of a low rise you will bump over the cattle gate and then be in the pasture, and if you know which trail to take and keep going, winding in and out around the grassy hills, leaving the trail in places where rain or melted snow has made it impassable for twenty or fifty feet or, in wet springs, maybe even longer distances, going through other gates, past waterholes or large troughs where the water was pumped up by windmills or, in later years, by solar panels, with cattle clustered around them, eventually you will reach the gate that opens onto the Butala land less than a mile from the house. But you’d be a fool to try it if you didn’t know the country, and if it had been raining and you didn’t have four-wheel drive and a lot of experience driving under such conditions. By the time my years in the southwest were over, I had made that drive by myself a couple of times. I think I should be proud of that even if I did it only in the driest times, but I am, I find, more saddened to remember, because I remember too that I went alone.
We used to ride horses out there occasionally; we had as a destination a particular hill, the highest in that huge area, the size of a tiny European country, and we would climb to the top on horseback, steering the horses on a zigzag pattern up the hill to make it easier on them. You had to hang on to your saddle blanket, too, because while you climbed it might work its way out from under the saddle, and in that vast space you would never find it again. Riding to the very top was an adventure. We never had much to say when we got there; usually nobody spoke, but each wandered off around the relatively flat space and gazed off into the distance as if, suddenly, an imperial city might be seen along the misty horizon, or an army on the move with troops and tanks and trucks. But there was nothing of the sort: just more hills, more grass, in the far distance the thin green snake of a windbreak of caraganas around somebody’s farmhouse, and sometimes the faint blue of the Bears Paw Mountains in Montana or a hint that might have been the Sweet Grass Hills to the southwest. We would look down at the tiny prairie plants, turn over a small stone, or gaze in thoughtful silence at the ancient pile of rocks some forgotten Indigenous people had long ago placed there.
I still have an arrowhead given to me by somebody who rode with us once. He had found it on the edge of a slough at the bottom of the hill. So much of that life has gone from me that I wonder why I even keep that arrowhead: I never look at it anymore, and it is so tiny compared to the weight of memory; yet I keep it. I remember that the person who found it said to me, touching his solar plexus, “You have to give up something to find them.” But I seem to have given up the wrong things: I used to find scrapers and flakes (tools for cleaning hides and the remnants of the tool-making) all over the place, but not arrowheads, or “points,” as the archaeologists call them.
Driving slowly by on the highway, knowing what lies on the other side of that low rise, the wind, the moving grass, the stars, the ghosts of the plains people of the past, the wild, I know that I will never again make that meandering drive among the hills and the cattle and the echoes of the past. So I keep on going east resolutely, and eventually the road curves north and the extreme east end of the Cypress Hills begins to rise before me, at first on my left and then straight ahead, extending just a little to my right, where, with surprising abruptness, the hills terminate. Just before the curve in the road leading down into the valley and the town, I reach the trail that leads into the cemetery where Peter’s remains lie.
By the time I reach the approach to the cemetery, it is usually late afternoon or even early evening. I don’t stop but keep on driving through Eastend and on into the next town, where I spend the night in a hotel. I don’t sleep well; I suffer on these trips from a high level of tension, some of it inexplicable — what is it I am afraid of? — but most of it caused by the memories I cannot push back out of sight, memories that I can’t shake off no matter how tired I am. Because of this I rise very early, the long blue shadows of night still vying with the liquid gold slowly spreading across the fields, gather my few things, check out, get in my car, and head back west on the road I came in on the evening before, continue on through the sleeping village of Eastend, climb up the road out of town, and turn in at the cemetery set on a sloping plateau high above the village on the south side of the Frenchman River valley.
When Peter died and I finally got to that stage of grief where I could think about my own future, I figured I had about ten years left to live. With that ten-year limit in my mind, and the fact that the village has a cemetery society to cut the grass, gather dried-out bouquets and throw out the plastic ones the weather has destroyed, as well as to inform the living if their loved one’s headstone needs to be re-set or if the grave is sinking, and given that Peter never really leaves my mind and heart, that he is embedded forever in my dreams and in my soul, I have to wonder why it matters to me to make these visits, to go out of my way not to see anyone in the community. Why am I there?
I park my car out of sight behind a low hill, and when I’ve shut off the motor and climbed out, I stand still for a moment, the breeze playing around me, and look around at the clumps of pasture sage, the grass-covered hillside rising behind me, across the valley to the glass-fronted T.rex Discovery Centre high on the other side, and up the valley to the west and then to the east. It is a peaceful setting. I can smell the sage, enjoy the sun whose realm I sense so high above the town. I have brought flowers, tiger lilies if I can get them, or other hothouse flowers associated with the prairie — daisies or snapdragons, small sunflowers. I bring a jug of water, a brush, a cloth, in order to wipe the bird droppings off the headstone, to clean the dirt off the base, and to shine the part the tombstone maker had polished to a perfect gleaming surface, leaving the sides as rough stone.
I go slowly up the hillside along the long row of lilac bushes and the fence that make the eastern boundary, passing graves of people whose names I recognize. Sometimes I remember a face, note one or two freshly dug graves, some with only temporary markers, and then I see Peter’s stone up ahead, on my right. I never know what to feel when I see it, and sometimes I hurry those last few feet as if he is sitting there lazily on his headstone, swinging one leg from the knee, braced on the other one, that easy-going, welcoming expression on his face, waiting for me to reach him.
But he is never there: I stand beside the headstone and the grave looking down at the pale grey-beige earth, the grass beginning to grow around and on it, at the red-speckled brown headstone I chose with such care, the stone that came from India, and I wait to feel something meaningful beyond what I guess is grief and the other emotions widows feel: regret; anger over old wounds, misunderstandings, and failures; warmth over remembered intimacy and tenderness; sadness for the sharing that is gone forever. I’ve never been good at obvious grief — the prostration, the sobbing, the retreat into deep, stone-like depression. I think too much, I go over and over events from the past as if by re-thinking and re-thinking them I can finally tease out from between the strands of memory, intertwined as they are, the real meaning, the answers to the questions that I don’t even know to ask. He was my husband for thirty-one years; I have a lot of things to mull over in my mind. Didion is never sentimental, and I like to think that I am not sentimental, and I know that visiting a grave annually or semi-annually is a sentimental thing to do, and yet I continue to do it.
From the beginning of my widowhood I had a strong need to do everything the right way. We did not cremate Peter — cremation seemed wrong to me; I felt he had done enough for his country that he deserved a fine, old-fashioned funeral and a grave in the Eastend cemetery with a good-quality tombstone with his name cut into it so that a century might pass before his name was lost. His father and his mother are both in that graveyard, and a lot of other people who were his neighbours and friends long before I married him. As well, as in most country cemeteries, there is a row of small stones of the children of one family who died all at the same time — in a fire, most likely, or maybe of diphtheria or scarlet fever — children no one now living ever saw, even their story lost. So I had his name and dates and RANCHER — OLD MAN ON HIS BACK engraved on the stone’s front and on the back FAR-SEEING (and never mind the puzzle over how to spell far-seeing). I took a cue from his mother, who, when her husband, Peter’s father, died, had a beautiful tombstone erected at his grave and had carved on it the words RANCHER and SMOLNIK, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, the village from where he had come in 1913 (now in the Slovak Republic). Respecting Peter’s heritage is important to me too.
Once I’ve finished polishing the stone and sweeping the dirt away from the footings, and have put the flowers into the plastic vase and pushed it into the earth in front of his headstone, I am at a loss as to what to do. In order to be properly respectful, I go to his parents’ graves and then to the graves of the few people buried there whom I actually knew myself, the number of these having increased every time I return. Then I head back to the car; stow my whisk broom, water jug, and cloth; get back in; and, with great reluctance and even greater puzzlement, the town still not stirring except for the one or two farm trucks on the road heading early out to the land, I start the long drive back to the city. I drive away fast, as if I am being pursued.
I do not mourn much on the way home, either for the lost land and the grass and flowering plants, the hills and the sky, or for Peter. My grief has been satiated for a while. Again I ask myself: Why do I do this? It takes two full days out of my busy life, and enormous emotional energy, and makes no difference at all that I can see. If nobody in the community even knows I was there, my trips can’t be to satisfy their requirements as to what makes a faithful wife. Most of the local people, these days, are cremated, in any case, and I have no idea what is done with their ashes but suspect that as a result there is nobody to visit in the graveyard, the remains being kept elsewhere or having been scattered to the winds. Still, I am doing my duty, whether Peter, or his dead parents, or his siblings, or anyone else cares or not. Maybe the ritual comforts me. I am still trying to answer the question I asked when I first came to the southwest: What am I doing here in this place so different from the one into which I was born and so far from the world of achievement I lived in before I gave it up to marry Peter? What was I doing here for thirty-three years? Maybe I hope that if I keep coming here year after year, somehow, someday, Peter will answer me.
I don’t waste any time until I reach Medicine Hat nearly three hours later; then I stop, eat, buy gas, and begin the last three hours of my drive into Calgary at as leisurely a pace as the Trans-Canada Highway allows. After two hours of heading northwest, I turn west and take a smaller paved highway on which you can’t go faster than one hundred kilometres per hour and sometimes not faster than fifty, that runs through the Siksika (or Blackfoot) reserve, then through the countryside below a line of villages that mostly can’t be seen from the road, and past cropland and farmhouses and round steel granaries, fields of grass and stands of tall, healthy leafy green poplars and elm trees, until finally I reach the highway that runs east–west along the southern edge of the city. On your right as you approach the city’s boundaries you can see the downtown high-rises, faded blue and purple with glimmers of gold rising above the flatland, and often when the weather is just right, straight ahead the dramatic snow-capped, peaked line of the Rocky Mountains. Even the air feels different, crisper, harder. When I first took that route, the road was just a normal if busy city thoroughfare, but now it is six lanes in places, fast, with many overpasses, exits, and feeder roads, and is called, ironically, Stoney Trail, after the Nakoda, or Stoney, people, who have a nearby reserve. For the slow and nervous driver there is no longer any mercy, but I grit my teeth and drive it.
This is home now. But although I had to move to the city when Peter died, I did so with reluctance, seeing my fate as sealed by his very death and just as much by my being a woman in a man’s world. Yet that part of the Great Plains was my home for so many years, and there is still a part of me that has not left and never will. With this memoir, I hereby claim forever my portion of that country whose many layers of history still resonate in my imagination — a place where wind and sun ruled and where it was, in those days, sometimes so dry that even the bitterly cold winter months could be nearly snowless. It was here on the open, treeless plains of southwest Saskatchewan, I lived what turned out to be not the rest of my life, but only the middle, the fulcrum, around which everything else circles.
A Journey through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope
Where I Live Now
A Journey through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope
“It was a terrible life; it was an enchanted life; it was a blessed life. And, of course, one day it ended.” —Sharon Butala
In the tradition of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal comes a revelatory new book from one of our beloved writers.
When Sharon Butala’s husband, Peter, died unexpectedly, she found herself with no place to call home. Torn by grief and loss, she fled the ranchlands of southwest Saskatchewan and moved to the city, leaving almost everything behind. A lifetime of possessions was reduced to a few boxes of books, clothes, and keepsakes. But a lifetime of experience went with her, and a limitless well of memory—of personal failures, of a marriage that everybody said would not last but did, of the unbreakable bonds of family.
Reinventing herself in an urban landscape was painful, and facing her new life as a widow tested her very being. Yet out of this hard-won new existence comes an astonishingly frank, compassionate and moving memoir that offers not only solace and hope but inspiration to those who endure profound loss.
Often called one of this country’s true visionaries, Sharon Butala shares her insights into the grieving process and reveals the small triumphs and funny moments that kept her going. Where I Live Now is profound in its understanding of the many homes women must build for themselves in a lifetime.
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