Bypass Instructions

Nonfiction by Marion Agnew

AgnewOn a sunny early-August morning, I load my new chainsaw, the squeeze bottle of cherry-coloured oil, and the small pair of loppers into the red wheelbarrow. I pull on my sap-stained leather work gloves and adjust the visor that keeps sun and hair out of my eyes. I stand in front of my husband, arms outstretched.

“This okay?” I ask.

Roy takes in my tennis shoes, full-length jeans, tee-shirt, and lightweight hooded sweatshirt carefully zipped over the hood’s strings. He nods but adds, his voice serious, “Be careful.”

There was a time when his concern would have secretly annoyed me. Perhaps not-so-secretly—it might have sparked eye-rolling, heavy-sigh annoyance, even to the “Geez, after all these years, why don’t you think I can do anything right?” level.

Today is different. I can’t resist a raised eyebrow as I remember how I once felt, but today, I recognize his concern. I smile.

He smiles back, but he still can’t keep the worry out of his forehead.

My turn. I look him up and down. Dressed for work in a stained nylon jacket and heavy cotton pants flecked with dried paint, he holds his new battery-powered pole saw upright beside him, an unintentional echo of American Gothic. I resist the urge to lay my hand on the front of his jacket, where underneath, his long, angry scar has flattened and faded from red to purple to lavender. Though I don’t reach toward him, I feel nerves firing in my forearms and palms.

“You, too,” I say, my voice more urgent than I’d like. “Be careful.”

And then, I take a step back. I turn away. If I don’t go now, I won’t be able to make myself leave.

I add, “I’ll be back in a little bit.”

And then I do it: I leave.

I lift my backpack—loaded with tissues, lip balm, screwdrivers, bug spray, WD-40, a spare pair of gloves, ear protection, and miscellaneous comfort items—into the wheelbarrow with the tools. As I set off across the yard, I hear him rev his pole saw, testing it. I wince a little at its buzz.

I beam a thought to him: Please, seriously: be careful.

Our voices echo in my head, admonishing and answering, “Be careful. Be careful.”

Thank you for choosing Black+Decker!

It is important for you to read and understand this manual. The information
it contains relates to protecting YOUR SAFETY and PREVENTING PROBLEMS.

For eleven years, Roy has, with worry, watched me learn to work outdoors. In ten days or so, we’ll celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. We live in a rural area, on land sloping down to Lake Superior. Through the past decade I’ve slowly learned to do a little of what’s required to care for our ten wooded acres—mow the part we call lawn, clear the driveway of snow in winter and trees in summer, split deadfall for our woodpile. Before I moved here, I’d never been particularly interested in outdoor work, but I did have some basic abilities with lawnmower and loppers. Still, he’s felt I required his supervision, and because supervising me makes him happy, I’ve let him.

Our marriage is his second (widowed), my third (twice divorced), and came when we were both well into in middle age. We share a love for this place, the lake, our view, and the animals who live here, too. We talk easily together, of subjects both silly and serious. We enjoy companionable silences.

We brought different approaches to projects, though. I like lists and priorities, followed by concrete tasks—recipes, if you will, for shoring up the septic field or replacing the roof. In contrast, he starts with what must be done (clearing downed trees from the driveway), but then he chooses projects by feel: he monitors the weather, looks for what’s easy and fun, and searches out jobs that present interesting puzzles. He likes finding intuitive solutions.

Despite our differences, we get things done: the deck and sidewalk are reinforced and stained, the woodshed is rebuilt and repainted. We’ve made our marriage work. Sometimes how well it works astonishes me. I’m always grateful.


Do not force the power tool. Use the correct power tool for your application.

I rattle the wheelbarrow through sun and shade over the grasses and ground cover that make up our lawn. Occasionally, a wild strawberry no bigger than a multivitamin winks up at me. I reach the stony two-track driveway that winds along beside the always-shaded cliff, where the air is damp and cooler and holds a hint of mystery. At the top of the hill, I break into a birch grove in full sun, surrounded by a sort of amber sweetness, like honey, though it’s probably the scent of something decaying.

My goal, still a half mile away, is the beach, where a dead spruce lies. Once at least thirty feet tall, it’s now a bare-branched skeleton half-buried in sand. It washed up at some point last winter and rests, inconveniently, just where we usually launch the rowboat. I can’t wait to clear it.

Through the years, Roy has learned that if I think a task is important, I’ll tackle it, no matter how hard he tries to talk me out of it.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” he’s said in resignation, as I’ve lifted loads of wood that he thinks are too heavy. “Be careful,” he’s cautioned, when I continue to work after he thinks I’m too tired. Although I’ve never hurt myself, he frowns at my stubbornness. I’ve learned not to mention sore muscles.

If I don’t have proper tools, I’ll do as much as I can with the tools I have, but even I know my limits in one area: chainsaws. I’m physically strong enough, but not confident enough, to handle any of our gas-powered chainsaws with ease. They’re loud and cumbersome and daunting. So I’ve found alternatives—I’ve pushed hand saws and loppers to their limits, and mine—but the results are unsatisfactory. I can’t keep up with the fast-growing alder and Manitoba maple.

Finally, a new tool presents a solution—a small yet effective battery-powered chainsaw has come on the market, along with a similar pole saw. For early anniversary gifts, we bought them for each other: the pole saw for him, the chainsaw for me.

For all that he prefers an intuitive “figure it out as you go” approach to complicated jobs, Roy loves to read owner’s manuals. “You never know what you’re going to learn,” he says.

So while I examined all the chainsaw’s components and started charging the battery, he immediately opened the manual. After a read-through, he handed it to me.

I looked at it blankly, then back up at him. “Maybe later,” I said.

He just shrugged and started my “chainsaw training.” He put the kibosh on the first jacket I wore: “That’s too loose, it could get caught in the teeth.” After the battery finished charging, he coached me as I used the new saw to clear a couple of tangles of deadfall that blocked a little-used fork of the driveway.

“Visualize the whole job, then do just one thing,” he has reminded me. “One step, then the next.”

Today, he knows the scope of what I plan to do. We’ve talked through my approach. He’s approved my wardrobe and my supplies. And now he’s letting me head off on my own, without his supervision—hence the concern in his voice and eyes.

So far, so familiar. After all, he’s had a decade of practice in letting me push against my limits, and he’s prepared me for today to the best of his ability.

But today is also a stretch for me. Yes, using the saw on my own is an exciting challenge. But my test is a different one—today, I’m letting him work alone for the first time in almost ten months. Since last autumn..

DO NOT OVER-TENSION CHAIN. Refer to “Adjusting Chain
Tension” for proper method of tensioning chain.

Roy has always been a safety freak—besides his love of owner’s manuals, he’s a speed-limit-driving, seat-belt-wearing kind of guy. I used to say “Be careful” as a joke, since he always is, and as an offhand synonym for “Goodbye,” like “See you later.”

But these days, “Be careful” holds new meaning.

Eight months ago, he had a heart attack. We learned that his “chest heaviness,” which he had accommodated and dismissed for years, was really angina. His angiogram showed extensive blockages in multiple veins and arteries. Late December of 2014 was a whirlwind: travel by air ambulance to a specialty hospital 1500 kilometres away for a quintuple bypass, five-plus hours in surgery, a day-and-a-half in intensive care, four days of inpatient recuperation, and a long and uncomfortable night in an airport hotel before our commercial flight home.

Most of that December, I was beyond afraid. I coped by not thinking about his heart or the specifics of surgery. I dug a deep hole and buried my fear in it. Since coming home, I’ve been trying to keep that fear underground. And at first, I was successful—just figuring out his medications was enough to think about.

He entered 2015 unsteady on his feet, dizzy and drugged, with a chest sawn apart and wired back together, the skin over it closed in a long, blood-encrusted wound. For the first week or two after we came home from the hospital, when simply sitting upright all day was a milestone, I hovered over him, trying to anticipate his needs.

After a day or two, I wondered if the weariness in his face came from his surgery and recuperation, or from my pestering him. Although he was always patient and nearly always cheerful, I could see how our conversation might dwindle, becoming only my questions—“How do you feel?” “Are you okay?” “Can I get you anything?”—and his answers of “Fine,” “Yes,” and “No.” Our silences occasionally grew less-than-companionable, which for us was a sure sign of something wrong. I began to try to make myself ask how he felt only every third time I thought of it. Then every fourth time. I failed often.

Of course, his health improved independent of my questioning. First, he resumed some of his usual winter activities—playing card games on the computer in his den, working on a novel. Then he began taking prescribed walks, eventually trading circuits around the living room for ten minutes on the treadmill, then twenty.

A swath of follow-up appointments forced us both back into the world. As doctors fired questions at him and pushed at his breastbone, I’d wince, my stomach twisting. There in an exam room, looking from wall to wall plastered with posters of human anatomy, it was really hard not to think about his surgery—how they’d cut apart his ribs, how they’d kept his inert body alive by a machine that breathed for him and circulated his blood, how they snipped and repaired many veins and arteries, deep inside him, with mysterious magical knots.

I’d take a breath and pull my focus to the present, what I’d written in my notebook as that day’s concerns: pills and side effects, schedules and calendars. It helped that everyone, including me, agreed: he was recuperating well. Occasionally, I wondered when I would.

His world continued to expand. He was cleared to drive earlier than I was ready to let him, but in late March, he drove himself the thirty kilometers to a cardiac rehab program held in a building just across the parking lot from the hospital. I stood at our front window to wave goodbye. As the car disappeared between the snowbanks lining our twisting driveway, I reminded myself of the nurses and physiotherapists who’d monitor his exercise, the cardiologist on call, the emergency room nearby. Deep breaths and household chores kept me occupied until I heard him on the porch, stamping snow off his boots, and I knew he was safely home.

Spring arrived, and summer. And now, eight months after his surgery, it’s hard to believe that he was ever incapacitated.



A moment of inattention while operating power tools may result in
serious personal injury.

Except for what I can’t forget on that August day—what keeps me tense.

He still gets dizzy spells. Sometimes he stands up, feels fine, and starts walking. Then the lightheadedness comes, his legs shake, and he has to bend over or reach out for support. The spells pass quickly, and he moves on without concern, but I remain unnerved. I keep remembering the time, a month into his recovery, when he fainted and slid to the kitchen floor. I’d been on the phone, distracted and not watching him, and only luck kept him from bashing his head on a sharp counter edge. I still don’t understand how his ribs didn’t crack and crunch, how his chest didn’t implode. I know he’s better at monitoring his body now, but he still has these moments, and I’m still hyper-vigilant.

As the summer has passed, he’s begun mowing the lawn, cruising the neighbourhood on a new bicycle (wearing a helmet, of course), splitting and stacking wood. Through July, I found ways to stay close while he worked.

Today, I know that it’s high time for me to wander farther away, but each step is difficult. Days like today, when the temperature edges from warm into hot and the air is muggy, are prime conditions for his dizzy spells. And he hasn’t worked with anything above chest-height since his surgery. Today’s tools, his new pole saw and our corded electric lopper, are the heaviest he’s tried to handle. He’s looked forward to “playing,” as he calls it, testing his new tool against the low-hanging pine and spruce branches that brush his face when he mows the lawn.

Today, I stop the wheelbarrow amid sprays of blood-red bunchberries in the clearing just above our sand-and-pebble beach. Now I wouldn’t mind the hearing buzz of his pole saw, but I’m too far away; besides, the shushing waves and the breeze stirring in the birches would drown it out.

Sometimes—all the time—I wish I could as easily blot out thoughts of his surgery. I wish it had never happened; or, more accurately, that it hadn’t been necessary. Mostly I want everything to be okay again, and I don’t even know what I mean by “okay.” There’s so much I feel I don’t know now—so much I can’t take for granted.

But one thing I do know: He doesn’t want, or need, me to hover.

I bite my lips together. Please be careful, I think again.


Do not overreach. Keep proper footing and balance at all times.

I unload the wheelbarrow. At the beach, I put oil in the chainsaw. I inhale and exhale, forcing my focus to the task in front of me. First, I test the saw: holding its forward handle in my left hand and the blade well away from my body, I pull back on the lock button with my right thumb and squeeze the trigger. The saw’s buzz reassures me. Yes, I remember how to do this.

Now, the tree. The trunk is straight, its branches reaching out across the beach both toward the water and the clearing, and straight up into the sky. As Roy and I discussed, I start by limbing—taking the branches off the trunk—but I’m too tentative with the saw, jabbing and poking at the branches instead of cutting decisively where they grow from the trunk. To clear some of them away, I have to set down the saw and grasp the hard-yet-brittle wood in my gloved hands, twisting until the branch cracks and snaps off.

The thought appears before I can stop it. Thank goodness his surgeons were more skilled than this. Tears fill my eyes. I give that thought to the breeze to carry away. I blink my tears away and adjust my visor, then I gather my thoughts to focus on the tree.

I roll the tree and take off the rest of the branches, feigning confidence with the saw. Cut from above, I remind myself; I want to keep sand from the chainsaw’s blade and switches. Then I find a piece of driftwood to wedge under the trunk so that I can cut stove lengths. I work my way down to the rotten stump end. I’m cutting more easily now, more successfully.

The breeze is cool off the lake, but cutting up a tree is hot work. I stop periodically to wipe my flushed and sweating face on the sleeve of my hoodie. I load the wheelbarrow with stove lengths as I go. One step, then the next.

Although I also walked the treadmill during the winter and spring, my physical fitness isn’t what it was before Roy’s surgery, either. As I bend and stretch and lift, I feel each movement, in a good way, in a “sore muscles later” way. I hope that working my body will help calm my over-alert, worried brain.

The wheelbarrow fills with stove lengths before I’m finished with the trunk. I take my load back up the path toward the woodshed and home, leaning into the load on the long uphill stretch and pulling back against its weight on the downhill slope. As I near the house, I listen but still don’t hear anything, nothing that sounds like a motor or blades buzzing.

Inside my gloves, sweat springs into my palms. I stifle my alarm, setting aside the slideshow of mental images of all potential catastrophes before the possibilities overwhelm me. Yes, he could have stood up too suddenly or overworked himself and fainted. He might be lying unconscious and bleeding on the ground, but it’s not likely. He’s careful.

In front of the house, I set down the wheelbarrow handles and toss my gloves on top of the load. With what I hope looks like nonchalance, I raise my arms above my head and twist slightly to stretch my back. Still no sign of him outside. I go indoors, just to see, I tell myself.

Roy’s sitting in front of the cool air that wafts through the screen door, eating a cherry ice pop. He says, “Hi! How’re you?”

My voice is guarded. “Fine. And you?”

“Cooling off.”



“Ah. But it’s going okay?”

“Just fine.” His eyes glint amusement at me.

“Okay.” I exhale and accept the anticlimax of the moment. “Well, I’m going to the woodshed and back to the tree.”

“Carry on,” he says.

So I do. This time, it’s easier, though not yet easy, to walk away.

I don’t mind being sore in places, places that may stay tender even after they’ve mostly healed. But I would like to be able to relax—really relax—someday. I wonder how long I’ll have to battle my nerves, the images of possible disasters, the lingering could-have-beens and maybe-stills. Perhaps my scars will also fade, in time. I wish I had answers.

With a sigh, I stack my stove lengths in the woodshed and circle back to the beach with the wheelbarrow to finish my job.


Later, back at the house, my tools stowed in the garage and the chainsaw battery recharging, I help Roy drag pine and spruce branches to the brush pile. While he puts his tools away, I take his stove lengths to the woodshed.

Then we shed our jackets and let the breeze cool us. I hand him a glass of water and drink from my own. We watch the sky and the lake: gray-and-white clouds scud one way while gray-blue waves push from the other direction. He tells me about the chipmunks and squirrels scolding him. I describe the eagle I startled from the birch snag and the lone merganser cruising our little bay. Neither of us saw the doe and fawns today.

After a brief silence, I say, “Was it hard for you to let me go to the beach on my own?”

“Very. I just wanted you to be really careful.”

“I was. I wanted you to be careful, too.”

“I was.”

As afternoon fades into evening, we walk over to the beach, where all that remains of the tree are a few handfuls of sawdust. We admire the reclaimed spot and let the breeze over the water smooth our foreheads.

He gazes out over the bay. “We did good work today.”

“Yeah, but I got sand in the chainsaw switch.” I sigh. “I really tried to be careful.”

“That’s okay. I’ll work on it tomorrow.” He ponders. “Maybe a vacuum cleaner?” Then he turns to me. “Was it fun?”

“Very,” I say.

And tomorrow, I might read the manual.


Photo credit

About Marion Agnew

Marion Agnew's fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in literary journals, including Malahat Review and Room, and in Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). She lives and writes in Shuniah, Ontario from an office overlooking Lake Superior.

Marion Agnew

Marion Agnew is online at