Today, April 26th, is my father’s birthday. It would have been his ninety-fifth. Each year, between this date and May 2nd, my mother’s birthday, their loss weighs heavily on me. I have written about my mother several times but, for the past few months, it is my father I’ve missed most acutely—the one I have longed to talk to because, even when someone we love is gone, the conversations do not end. But my father was so difficult to talk to in life, so reticent to share anything of his early years, his youthful dreams, his regrets. I caught a glimpse, distorted in time and detail, as he made his “final accounting” as the palliative nurse called it, the day my brothers and I made the agonizing decision to withdraw food and water. It was five days after his stroke and car accident and two days after our mother had died in another hospital from an unrelated cause. I believe he understood mom was gone, even if he wasn’t sure how, because he seemed ready to let go. His body, however, would hang on for another nine days. Each day as I sat beside him I told him, again and again: I love you. We had a good life. You are a good man.
So simple, the things we say at death that we find almost impossible to say in life.
The following piece, published here on my blog back on December 26, 2015 and re-blogged at least once, was written the day after the children and I had been to see my father after he had suffered what we thought was a stroke but was most likely a traumatic brain injury. At the time his prognosis did not look good, but to everyone’s surprise, he pulled himself back from the edge, making an impressive recovery. Not quite impressive enough to return home however, but he checked himself out of the hospital anyhow. The following six months were stressful. I went up to spend the night at my parents’ place regularly, but he was unstable and erratic while my mother’s health quickly declined. In July, 2016, they died within eleven days of one another.
When I have written about my father in the intervening years, it is always about his books many of which I now have with me. However, this first reflection, composed when he was still alive but with an uncertain future, still captures my connection to him best. So today, once more, I want to remember him in present tense:
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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 two hours north of the city I live in. Long story short, 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.
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.