Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Death in another town



How strange is death. That was a statement, not a question. No letters correcting my punctuation, please.

It’s the grand finale we’re all working towards but no one’s looking forward to or, in many cases, even talking about. It’s the last great mystery of life and, arguably, the only real excuse for the longevity of religious beliefs. It’s our final chance to do something well but very few of us give much thought to, or even take an active hand in, how and when and with what flair we do it.

When death comes, even to those long suffering in its final throes, it is said to come suddenly. Death can come no other way. As you breathe your last breath, you’re alive. When you fail to inhale again, you’re dead.

Some of us believe we’ll go to heaven even though we can’t really describe what it might be like unless we are a Muslim martyr dreamin’ of 72 virgins. Some of us believe in hell and are pretty sure we’ve had more than a few experiences close enough to the real thing to have a better understanding of that option. Some of us expect to make our way through the increasingly exquisite levels of enlightenment or, if we’re wrong, be reincarnated as a cockroach. Some of believe when we’re dead, we’re just dead meat and all the nonsense about the transcendent human spirit is just a psychic nightlight to keep the boogieman away. Me? I want to come back as my dog if he’s willing to share the job with me.

Death brings me back to the little prairie town of Winkler, Manitoba. Winkler is a town of roughly seven thousand souls, several of whom I am related to by marriage. Truth be told, I have more relatives in and around Winkler than anywhere else in the world. That probably says something about the weirdness of marriage but that’s for another column.

Winkler is a lot like Whistler, which is totally inexplicable since I couldn’t imagine two places more dissimilar. Both have about the same population, both rely on people who live outside of town to make the town work and to ensure its prosperity. Both towns are economic oases in areas more prone to the ups and downs of a global economy. Both celebrate Canada Day.

But where Whistler is all about vertical, Winkler is all about horizontal. Where Winkies are all about hard work and harvesting the bounty of the land, Whistleratics are all about hard play — which, to be fair, we consider work — and harvest the bounty of anyone who stumbles into town. If what happens in Whistler stays in Whistler, what happens in Winkler is known by just about everyone in town… as soon as it happens.

If Whistler is a haven for the young, the young at heart and, let’s be honest, the terminally immature, Winkler is a haven for an older generation. It is, in the words of locals — a term reserved for those whose grandparents were born nearby — heaven’s waiting room. In large numbers, they come in off surrounding farms after a lifetime of hard work in and around much smaller towns, towns with names like Altona, Gretna, Schanzenfeld, Reinland, Schoenwiese and others too repetitive to mention, towns whose “Welcome To” and “Please Come Back” road signs are printed back to front on the same piece of faded plywood, towns whose populations read like IQ scores of the not particularly gifted, towns whose sole reason for existing, a once-new now dilapidated grain elevator, is gone because the railroad has cut their elevator off the serviced line.

They’ve passed on the family farm to their children and moved themselves to Winkler to await their fate and measure the goodness of their lives against a scale they’ve worked hard to tailor to their individual faults. In the process, they’ve created the town in their image, a pious, German, Mennonite image. Sin does not live in Winkler, MB. Eight miles up the road in Morden sin thrives, taking the form of a liquor store, a couple of roadhouse bars and Sunday shopping. Good citizens of Winkler shun Morden, driving out of their way on mean farm roads to avoid passing too near and being seduced by its siren song. Not-so-good Winkies sneak in through unmarked back doors.

In a town alive with industry it is yet another paradox that death is one of the strongest going concerns. Every morning after the 9 o’clock news, CRIP, Death Radio, tolls the bell for all who have succumbed within its broadcast range. For the better part of 30 minutes, an announcer somberly gives the names of the dead and the near-dead they’ve left behind, a synopsis of their life’s accomplishments in the form of whom they begat, the times and place of their viewing and funeral, and where and when interment will take place, all intoned in a disembodied, funereal voice completely devoid of life.

In a time when many newspapers have relegated obituaries to half a page of terse classifieds tucked somewhere near the back, the local weekly overflows with several pages of long, flowery announcements running 10, 12, sometimes 15 column inches. They recite the highlights of a lifetime and trace the many stout branches of the departed’s family tree from deep roots to a fertile crop of great-great grandchildren.

If death is its largest industry, reproduction runs a close second. It is said, with only a hint of exaggeration, that Mennonites don’t have sex standing up because they’re afraid people might think they’re dancing. Judging from the proliferation of children, they have no time for dancing and have seldom seen late night TV. Outside of Utah there may not be another first-world locale where families are grown as bountifully as they are here. To be married and have no children is a perversion of epic proportions, salved by a collective pity that one or both nonparents must be deficient in the God-given bits needed to reproduce, bits still considered a mystery judging by the legions of children trailing swollen and expectant mothers through town, paraded behind like ducklings and metered out in increments of roughly nine months and a day, each a few inches shorter than the one ahead and all scrubbed to a translucent glow reminiscent of new skin left behind after a bad sunburn peels away.

Perhaps it is the culture of death that gives rise to all the children. I don’t intend to stick around to find out. If death came suddenly for my brother-in-law, Wally Siemens, his funeral came just as suddenly and just like that, I’ll be back in Whistler, a town not really much like Winkler at all now that I think about it.