My father’s library: A very personal reflection

Originally published in December, 2015, I have updated this essay with an addendum.

I was standing in my father’s library last night, looking for a book I could not find, but as I scanned the titles I began to read the shelves as life lines, like the lines that always creased his forehead and fanned out from the corners of his eyes as he squinted through the windshield or glanced up into the rearview mirror of the car. For as long as I can remember, my father never drove without a grimace. The shelf lines are deep and distinct. His love of classic literature represented in tattered hardcover volumes with faded lettering on the spines. His life long obsession with Russia marked with rows of history books, discourses on Stalin and Marxism taking up more space than I’d remembered. And the Soviet literature, of course. Then his more recent forays into western American literature, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner. I wonder when he ever took the time to read. When other men might have eased into a life of retirement, my father resisted. Retirement is, like false teeth or hearing aids, for old men. He is 87.

My father is one of those men who, living by Dylan Thomas’ dictum not to go gentle into that good night, has spent his life fighting death with massive doses of mega-vitamins, a deep-seated distrust of doctors, and the belief that if one keeps on working, dedicating oneself to physical labour day after day after day, the Grim Reaper will never get a foothold. Ever. That means continuing to struggle with wheelbarrows full of wet cement, devising new projects, and never turning his back on a beloved old Mercedes that has broken his heart and nearly cost his life a few times. No matter how bent and weary, despite occasionally falling into the wood stove (“it’s nothing”), my father shuffled on defiantly until last Sunday morning when he fell and suffered a massive stroke in the simple human act of putting his pants on, as we all do, one leg at a time.

Yesterday, Christmas Day, was my first opportunity to get up to see him. Fate was not conspiring to make it easy – unless I am reading it wrong – but my car collapsed before I even made it out of town. For better or worse, we were across the street from an established mechanic shop and outside the house of a family who kindly took us in out of the -21c weather until we could make arrangements to get up to my parent’s house, a little cottage in the woods outside a village about 2 hours north of the city I live in. Long story short but one of my brothers was able to drive us, when attempting to rent a car proved impossible. From there I drove my mother, in her car, to Red Deer where my father is hospitalized – a further hour each way.

My first reaction to seeing my father helpless and restrained to his bed was, naturally, heartbreaking. But as my daughter and I took turns holding his hand, stroking his now smooth forehead, witnessing the genuine joy in his eyes – so pleased to see us even if he won’t remember – I realized that I have never, in my life, felt closer to this complicated and difficult man. Meanwhile, my son, hung over and fighting a panic attack, held back, not ready yet to come close. And that’s okay. They have had their own challenges over the years (the long hair and beard chief among them), but he and my father are, in their way, remarkably close. They have gone to the opera together and Thomas has already been given some of his grandfather’s most precious books.

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A childhood favourite of my father’s. My son keeps it safely in a plastic bag.

My father has never been an easy man, but as I grew older I was able to appreciate how harsh his own upbringing was, and to recognize in him the mood disorder we both share, even if he denies its existence. I learned to leave him space, to meet his outbursts without taking them too deeply. After all, how could I, the intellectually inclined, queer black sheep of the family, not love a man who worked in construction camps in remote Ontario, learning the electrical trade organically, until he could save enough to money to do what his family always discouraged – move to New York City and enroll at Columbia in his late twenties. He studied engineering, but he should have been an academic if he could have justified the path. His greatest thrill was reviewing opera and classical music performances for the student newspaper. His love of all things Russian also stems from this era – I am not entirely certain of the exact genesis, but seem to think it may have involved a woman. Hard to imagine,as my father never struck me as the romantic type but he did, in his younger years, bear a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart. Maybe there was smoky Russian woman in his past.

As it turned out, he never finished his degree, in those days it wasn’t necessary for an engineering designation. When he met and married my mother in 1957, school was abandoned for full-time employment and, over time, they would move to rural western Canada where he would pine for the New York of the 1950’s while simultaneously looking for more and more remote locations in which to settle. These last few years, working away in defiance of death in a cottage outside of Caroline, Alberta, have probably been some of his happiest. And now we don’t know what the future holds. In the months ahead as my brothers and I seek to find accommodations for our parents, I want to make sure I can look after the library, because unlike the countless carefully labelled jars of salvaged nut and bolts that insulate his workshop, for me, this is where his heart lies.

I want to curate it for him. Whether or not he is ever able to read again, I know he would want the company of some of his books if possible in the future. And I want to trace and record those shelf lines in his honour.

Update: My father did recover to return home, against his doctor’s orders and, for a time managed better than expected. On July 5, 2016 he suffered a stroke and was involved in a head-on collision (as to which came first it will never be known). Remarkably he survived the initial trauma and the stroke, but further complications continued to arise in hospital and he passed away on July 20.

In the midst of all this, my mother was taken to the hospital on July 6 due to infected sores on her feet. When she arrived her oxygen levels were less than 60%. Her lungs had been so restricted by long term effects of osteoporosis that the exchange of CO2 was severely impacted. A respirator failed to reverse the situation, and she passed away on July 9, 2016.

Within two weeks, we lost them both.

This Is Paradise, or where does fiction meet real life?

I cannot remember ever really wanting to be anything other than a writer. How then did I get to mid-life believing that my aspirations would never extend beyond the inevitable writing and editing of newsletters and promotional material with every job or volunteer position I have ever held? Why have I been hit with a curious mix of pride and anxiety every time someone has commented on my facility with words?

In truth, there was a point in my late teens or early 20s in which I made the conscious decision to wait until I had lived a little before writing. I assumed a little experience would provide material and perspective. I had not bargained for the complicated experiences that awaited me or how long it would take for me to wade through and unravel it all. And when I did find my way through I found myself unwilling to bare my soul on the page. But every writer has a story they were born to tell, or as James Baldwin said about Go Tell It On the Mountain, the story they have to tell if they tell no other. Frequently it is a coming of age story, a coming out story, a tale of childhood loss or trauma. But that not need be the case. Nor is it necessarily the first story a writer sits down to tell. It can be recounted in fiction or presented as memoir, but the telling is essential, cathartic and close to the bone; even if no one beyond a few friends or relatives ever see the manuscript or hold a copy of a self-published book.

As I look back, I finally understand why I decided to put my writerly aspirations on hold so many years ago. I also understand the barriers I have placed between my impulse to protect myself and my identity and any story I thought I might tell. In this context those reasons are not important. I have also come to recognize the story that I really need to tell is one which I have only recently come to understand myself. So with the unexpected time that my present inability to return to work has afforded me, the gift of introspection and a desperate need to get this story out onto the page and hopefully gain some distance; I want to see what I can do.

But the challenge with stories that find their source close to life lived, is that this same life not only belongs to me. It cannot be divorced from real people. Or real experience. I am not certain how to balance the need to breathe truth into an experience and the desire to protect those I love.

paradiseMy latest read has inspired these questions. After my enthusiastic encounter with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, I turned to his 2012 novel This Is Paradise, which I have had on hand for nearly two years. The right book, at the right moment it seems. A relatively spare novel that is at once intimate and ambitious in scope, this book opens with Emily Allden’s difficult pregnancy with her fourth child, and closes decades later following her death. Benjamin, the youngest, unborn at the beginning is an enthusiastic traveller on his first chance to join his older siblings and parents on their regular holiday trip to France in the first half of the novel. In the second half Benjamin, now grown becomes the lens through whom we see the family – his well meaning but emotionally distant father; his intelligent but volatile older brother Clive (who is clearly dealing with perhaps aspergers or a mental health disorder) and his two sisters, the capable Liz and the delicate Lotte – as they cope with their mother’s increasing dementia, the decision to place her in a care facility, and the lingering final days of her life.

Eaves’ deft ear for the nuances of conversation, sensitivity for the complex social dynamics that bind and divide family, and keen eye for visual detail allow him to create a coherent interplay between the members of this large family and a handful of supporting characters across the decades. He does this by employing a style that is at times fragmentary, sometimes reflectively slipping back into passing remembrances, but always evocative of the way that we tend to think about and experience our lives over time. The result is rich with wonderful moments that add depth and resonance.

Yet as I was reading This Is Paradise, I was especially struck by the pivotal account of Emily’s illness, the details of her physical and mental disintegration, and the mixed emotions that rise and fall between the various members of the Allden clan throughout this process. It rang true in a way that made me wonder if it was grounded in lived experience. It was then no surprise to find that Will Eaves had in fact published an essay in The Guardian about his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. When he recounts an event repeated in the novel I naturally wanted to know where reality and fiction intersect in his story. And how does an author decide what to paint clearly and what to disguise?

To be honest I am not generally drawn to family dramas, especially ones with such a sprawling cast and ambitious reach across the years. Mind you in another writer’s hands this would likely be a book at least 600 pages long. In half that length, we trace a loving portrait of a complex and deeply human family from childhood spats through adult stresses and concerns to the bonding moment of shared loss.

And since it is from my own immediate family that the story I want to tell arises, I suppose I will be paying closer attention than ever to the way such dynamics are played out in literature.