As the years ticked by, my thirst for adventure grew — and with it the desire to see more of the great wide world. So when my oldest brother, Dan, invited me and Nicholas to spend our March break in Ottawa where he was attending university, I jumped at the opportunity.

For two country bumpkins like me and Nicholas, the nation’s capital was an extremely exotic destination. We spent our holidays marvelling at the many urban sights and sounds and enjoying the conspicuous absence of livestock, tractors and the smell of manure.

Once the week was over, our plan was to catch the train from Ottawa to Stratford. There, Mom would pick us up and return us to our rural existence. Easy-peasy.  

Early classes meant Dan couldn’t escort us to the train station for our morning departure. Instead, he gave us detailed instructions on which city bus we’d need to take to get us there in time. “Relax,” we told him.

Although this was to be our first experience with public transportation, we were feeling confident in our abilities now that we had a week in the big city under our belts.

Dubious, Dan left for school, leaving us to leisurely pack our bags and watch one more episode of a cartoon we didn’t get in Port Albert before ambling to the bus stop. A few minutes later, we boarded the bus as if we had been city slickers our entire lives and not a pair of wide-eyed tourists. 

Unfortunately, the unusual luggage we carried kept us from blending in entirely. For starters, Dan had an old television that was destined for the landfill until Nicholas offered to take it. It wasn’t particularly large, but it was heavy and awkward to carry, requiring the use of both hands. 

That left me to carry the other items we had acquired during our visit. The first was a giant stuffed gorilla that Nicholas had won at a carnival game the night before. The second was a rolled-up set of bamboo window blinds that had a picture painted on it of Sailor Moon, our favourite Japanese anime character.

As the bus bounced along the Ottawa streets, I kept a close eye out for the stop where Dan had told us to disembark. However, what he failed to mention was that the bus driver was not, in fact, a mind reader who knew when his passengers wanted to get off. Sure enough, I watched in horror as the bus whizzed by our stop without so much as slowing down. 

Quickly realizing my mistake, I rang the bell requesting the next stop and checked my watch to see how much time we had before our train left. Twenty minutes. No problem, I tried to convince myself as panic grew in my stomach and the bus continued its seemingly never-ending journey farther away from the station. In my mind, I could hear the tsk-tsk of our punctuality-obsessed mother.

Nicholas — who had been leaving the navigating in the capable hands of his big brother — noticed the sweat now pouring from my brow and gave me a questioning look. Without explaining the situation, I looked him in the eye and gave him one simple command that left no room for discussion. 

“When this bus stops,” I said, “Don’t. Stop. Running.”

A lifetime later, the bus finally rolled to a halt. With only the vaguest sense of where the train station was located, I proceeded to lead Nicholas in a mad dash against time and our mother’s wrath. 

We ran harder than we had ever run in our lives — Nicholas with the television that he refused to part with, me with an oversized stuffed gorilla and a set of window blinds. We ran until we were ready to puke, our mother’s scowl etched in our minds, driving us onward.

Before long, however, the weight of the TV began to take its toll on Nicholas and his pace slowed. The gorilla and I started to outrun him. At the next intersection, a man informed me that the train station was just two blocks away. We were close.

But that’s when fate delivered yet another stinging blow. Bit by bit, my pounding footfalls were jarring loose the strings from the Sailor Moon blinds. Soon, they unravelled completely and got tangled up in my legs, hogtying me in full sprint. With no time to extricate myself, I ran on like a man in leg shackles, my strides cut in half. 

By the grace of some merciful god, the station came into view with just seconds to spare. With no time to waste, I staggered across the tracks and hurried directly for the train. A security guard rushed toward me, clearly concerned about the gorilla-toting madman ensnared in string. “Where are you going?!” he demanded.

“STRATFORD!” I yelled back, although I’m sure that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. When he realized I did in fact have a ticket and wasn’t a security threat, he waved me toward the train that was mere moments from leaving. 

Gasping for breath and still tied up in string, I informed the ticket-taker that my brother was on his way. Sure enough, Nicholas came into view a few seconds later, huffing and puffing with his hands in a death grip around his precious TV. 

The ticket-taker did not look impressed. I was just glad I didn’t vomit on his shoes as I boarded.

If nothing else, the race to catch the train was a good lesson in blame and self-sabotage. 

How often do you point fingers when something goes wrong, instead of reflecting on how you might have screwed things up? It’s certainly easier than assuming personal responsibility. Dan should have given better instructions. The bus driver should have stopped. Mom should have given us money to take a taxi to the station. 

It’s easy to blame others when things go wrong. It’s harder to take an honest look inside to see how your own actions have contributed to the problem. 

After all, we were the ones who left it to the last minute before leaving Dan’s apartment. We forgot to ring the bell on the bus. We insisted on bringing ridiculous bamboo blinds with loosely tied strings and a heavy TV (which, by the way, never did work and ended up in the landfill anyway).

During my journey with leukemia, I was guilty of self-sabotage on several occasions. I would bottle up my emotions, which amped up my anxiety. I would stay up late watching movies, making my fatigue worse. And sometimes I would neglect to tell my health team about certain symptoms, making their job more difficult.

But taking ownership over these problems made them easier to address and avoid in the future. 

Meanwhile, our Ottawa adventure reminded me that playing the blame game rarely helps anything. Nicholas and I could have sat on the curb complaining about our bus driver. But that wasn’t going to help us catch our train. 

Similarly, I could shake my fist at the universe when I got cancer. Or resent my family doctor for not catching my cancer sooner. But to what end? As with our race to the train, that energy was better spent looking forward and tackling the task at hand.

Next: Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words