My father was born on this day, April 26th, in 1928, the year before the crash. He has been gone four years this July. My mother’s birthday is at the far end of this week, on May 2nd. She was born in 1934 and, like my father, she too has been gone four years this July—my parents died eleven days apart. My mother’s final days were spent on a respirator in ICU while, across town, my father was slowly slipping toward death following a stroke and head-on collision— we’ll never know which one came first. Their deaths intersected in time but in separate hospitals, here in the city, two hours from the village where they’d been living. Neither was able to see the other as the end neared. Sometimes during his final week of life my father would shake himself into the present and say Where’s Mother? I’d like to see Mother. And I would have to tell him once more that she had died. I’m so sorry, Dad, she’s gone. To explain the cause was too complicated at that point. I think he thought she died in the accident even though she hadn’t been with him. I don’t know. But I do know it was enough to let him surrender his fear of death and prepare to follow her.
I’ve been thinking of my parents a lot these days. The sadness lingers, as it will, but I feel their presences with a new sense of connection, more immediacy and less of a painful sense of loss. Some of this is relief. Neither would have fared well with this virus at hand, nor would either have wanted to witness the decay of leadership and mounting death toll in the US. My mother was born in New York City. My parents met and married there in 1957 and for many years after they had moved to Canada, it remained attached to certain youthful ideal in my father’s mind. The devastation in that city alone would have been heart breaking for both. Best, I tell myself, that they passed as they did, together after good, long lives. And it’s a blessing that my brothers and I were able to be at their bedsides, a gift denied so many right now. I have, in this understanding, embraced a new stage of grief, one which recognizes that they are not ever really gone. I carry them with me. And with them I’m finally ready to move on.
I fear I’ve been in limbo since my parents died. Not certain who I am any more. Strange because I’ve been fortunate to travel far—to Australia, India and Nepal—but that has been as much escape and random exploration, haphazard, trusting to chance rather than direction. I put a critical part of myself on hold. It was easier to engage, easier to make friends, easier to feel a creative sense of worth away from home. No sooner would I get back than I would be thinking about my next trip out. Now, at least until this pandemic is under control, I’m here, in a city where I have never really found my footing despite 26 years in the same neighbourhood, tracing the same paths, growing old in the same streets.
Sometimes when I walk through these old familiar streets, I think of the many painful passages of the past two and half decades. The long evening excursions just to get out of the house as my marriage was falling apart and I was wrestling with a troubled identity I could not understand or name. Then, the times when an expanding grid of sidewalks became the course of a pained and slow rehabilitation, as, feeling aged before my time, I slowly hobbled through recovery from two botched surgeries, a third major surgery, a serious manic episode, treated, inappropriately, with a med that made me lose my balance as I walked, and finally with broken ribs healing after the CPR that saved my life. Little wonder now that I prefer to stick to the wilder pathways and trails along the embankment above the river.
While many of my friends across the globe have been enduring varying levels of restriction these past weeks, I’m lucky to be able to get out and walk—two metres distancing observed of course—and I try not to miss a day. Now that the snow is gone I can shift the walk into a serious workout. I marked out a good loop and measured a base level pace yesterday. The weather is good. Over the years, this day has often seen unexpected sudden heavy spring snowfalls. My father’s birthday as a reference point has fixed them in my memory along with cancelled school outings or missed children’s parties along the way.
This year I want to honour my parents for the entire week bookended by their birthdays. Spend time with my memories of them.
Think about what they left me. Left within me.