Looking back after the biggest loss of my life

Dad plaid photoI was an April baby, born as a late Aries on April 19, 1982.

But ever since April 2013, this month holds a different meaning for me. Yes, it still brings on birthday memories, but I don’t look forward to it the way I used to.

In 2013, my dad died on April 12, a week before my 31st birthday. The year before, I’d happily rung in my 30th surrounded by friends, staying out until well past three in the morning.

Since my father’s passing, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve stayed out so late. My last birthday party was in 2013; I was lucky to have friends who rallied around me at the time, but of course it felt strange to be celebrating life in the wake of death.

I haven’t had a birthday party since. My birthday has a different feel to it now, and I’ve gone out of town for it in the past two years.

I still look forward to celebrating, but not in the same way.  I’ve gone out of town with my partner for my birthday these past two years. This year, I’ll need to figure out something different. My partner will be off to Beijing where his first feature film is being screened at a film festival.

I’m happy he’s going, no question, but selfishly I’m sad at the thought of us being so far away on my birthday, when I’m already down one important person – my dad.

What can I say? It’s not easy to be a person, with all of these feelings that we have, all of these emotions and the grief that seems to live on for so long sometimes.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to get the old feeling back about my birthday that I used to have. Or maybe this is the year for me to step back out again.

It’s been hard to even think of planning anything, though. As I’m writing this, most of my life is in boxes. By the time this message reaches you, I’ll be living in a new space.

I’m moving for the second time since my dad died, and the process yet again has allowed me to relive so many memories.

Every time I move, I can’t help but come across a small memento or photograph that slipped to the bottom of a drawer, waiting in surprise.

So I wanted to dig out this post that I wrote a month after my dad died. It is a long read, as it’s one of the most personal things I have shared.

Thanks for being here.

xo

There’s an animal-print blazer hanging in my closet. It’s a blend of leopard, zebra, cheetah, and tiger. The fabric is stretchy, the fit is loose. I’ve had it for five years. I’ve never worn it, and I never will.

But I’ve never been able to bring myself to get rid of it.

It’s one of the few things I have that my dad ever gave me. It’s something he picked out with my mom on a trip they took to Florida in September, 2008. The jacket obviously came from a store for women of a certain age – an age that I, then 26, had a while to get to yet. My parents had picked it out because I was big on leopard print at the time. I had a vintage faux-fur leopard coat that I wore until the lining disintegrated.

They were very excited about the jacket. My mom showed it to me first, upstairs in my old bedroom. She’d called me up with a hooked finger, like she was about to let me in on a secret. “Come, I want to show you something,” she’d said. I feigned enthusiasm and reassured her I liked it.

Downstairs, my dad – who rarely expressed any sense of excitement about clothing – looked up at me, smiling. “Do you like your jacket?” he asked. Shit, I thought. Here we go again. I lied and said yes. “Try it on and let me see how it fits,” he said. I went back upstairs and got the jacket, showed it off.

“We both saw it at the same time and said, ‘oh, that’s for Liz’,” my mom said as they stood there, staring at me with the jacket.

I thanked them and told them I’d wear it to work on Monday.

The tags are still on it.

Dad 1950s

For years, I’d rehearsed how the last night of my dad’s life would go. I imagined I’d get a late-night phone call, take a cab across town, and stay up late, on edge in a hospital room, waiting it out until the very last moment.

I had never known my dad to be what I would consider healthy. A heavy smoker for years, he had a heart attack when I was five years old. We’d been hanging out on the couch, watching TV, like usual. My mom was in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner. “Go tell your mother something’s wrong,” he’d said. He ended up in the hospital for eight days.

He quit smoking after that, but replaced cigarettes with food. His cholesterol skyrocketed, and so did his weight. Prescription bottles lined the kitchen counter. Eventually, I lost count of how many pills my dad needed to take in a day.

He lost the weight, changed his diet, but still needed medication. His heart would always have problems. Later, his kidneys did, too.

In 2008, just weeks after that trip to Florida where the above-mentioned jacket was acquired, my dad ended up in the hospital, near-death from a punctured bowel after a routine procedure. What happens with a puncture like that is bacteria escapes through to your other organs, and the body reacts by shutting each of them down. He ended up in the hospital for eight months, finally coming home in 2009.

It took him a long time to get his strength back after that. My dad was strong – his pre-existing health problems hadn’t seemed to slow him much at all. He maintained a beautiful backyard garden, was a self-taught woodworker, and seemed to be able to figure out how to fix or build anything. Just a couple months after getting out of the hospital in 2009, after we’d all thought my dad wasn’t ever going to make it out of there, he went away to Cuba with my mom.

He was getting back to himself, but then, at the same time, he wasn’t ever really the same after all that.

One of my favourite memories of my dad goes back to a country flea market we’d stopped at up north one day. I was very young – maybe five years old – and had found a hand puppet that I immediately fell in love with. It was hideous – matted brown fur, a felt tongue of neon orange, navy blue mouth, a tuft of black hair, and big shiny eyes. I named it Horsey, even though I was never really sure that it was actually a horse.

Many, many nights after that, my dad and I would get down on the living room floor after dinner and play with a plastic picnic set I had. I would lay out a little plaid blanket, pull out a pile of plastic food, and my dad would put Horsey on his hand. Talking in a high, silly voice, he would pretend to be Horsey, excited about all the food. When my dad would get bored, he would make Horsey get sleepy, saying he was full from such a nice picnic.

I don’t know where that puppet ended up. When you get older, you get rid of so many things from your childhood. I wish that I’d held onto that puppet, though.

Since my dad died, I’ve heard many, many people who knew him talk about the depth of his patience. We never argued, and the times he did get mad at me were moments when I’d really, really pushed things to the edge. But even then, he never stayed angry. It never felt like anything between us had changed.

The thing about my dad was that he was easy to hang out with. He didn’t ask too many questions. He didn’t argue. He didn’t judge. One time, when my mom looked down at my arm and said, “Did you really have to get another tattoo?”

My dad simply looked up and said, “Liz is the kind of person who likes tattoos, and that’s that.” My mom never said anything about it again.

There was a time when I would tell people that my dad was my best friend. When I was younger and still living at home, we would sit on the back deck, drinking beer and talking about anything, or nothing. We could both sit there in silence, perfectly comfortable listening to the summer buzz around us.

Sometimes I would ask my dad about his life growing up in rural Nova Scotia, where there was no electricity or running water and a lot of kids and very little money. Sometimes I would sit there and read a book and he would listen to the baseball game on the radio.

On my summer breaks in high school and college, my dad – who worked shifts and rotating weekends – would often be home during the day while my mom was at work. A lot of times we would drive around to thrift stores, or he’d ask me if I wanted to go with him to Home Depot where he’d pick up a new tool or piece of wood for something he was working on.

After I moved out on my own, we didn’t do those things any more, just the two of us. Sometimes, when I would go home for a weekend to visit, I would ask if we could go look around at Salvation Army or something.

“What do you want to go out there for?” my dad would ask. “You’ve got enough junk.”

I realized he felt completely differently about our summer days spent thrift shopping. I thought we’d been doing something fun together that we both liked. He was just taking me because I was a teenager with nothing else to do.

I always felt like there was so much we didn’t know about each other. My dad was not a sentimental person, unlike me. He was never one to look back. If he did, he never seemed nostalgic for other times. He always seemed present, as if whatever was happening right in front of him was all that mattered.

There are a lot of things about me that my dad never knew. And there were times when he could have done more to reach out, to pry a little more into my life. There are times I needed someone to do that, but it never happened. I don’t hold it against him. Never did.

Besides, some things I didn’t want him to know, because I didn’t want him to worry. I think a lot of us keep secrets from our parents for that reason.

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer in November of 2012, I knew it was over. Our cat, Pandora, died on the day the news came. It was a very bad omen. It as shitty as days can get.

At Christmas, I kept thinking, this is the last time we’ll do this together. I hated that that’s what was going through  my head, but it was.

My dad, usually one to give cash in a card, had bought me a present: an aromatherapy bath set, lavender-scented for ‘sleep and relaxation’, because he knew about my chronic sleeping issues. It came with a little plush sheep. When I got home from Christmas, I hung the sheep up on my lamp and cried.

It was something he’d picked out just for me, and that meant so much, because it didn’t happen often. One of the last times he’d given me a gift was when my grandfather died and my dad had flown home to Nova Scotia for the funeral. He came back with a necklace for me – a single purple seashell on a cord. I loved it, and wore it throughout that summer.

One day, I put it in a pocket inside my purse when I stayed over at someone’s house. I forgot to put it on again in the morning, and by the time I got back home and remembered it was in there, the shell had gotten crushed under the weight of a book I’d been carrying around.

I felt horrible about it.

My dad got quieter and quieter as the days wore on. He started chemo in late December and at first it didn’t seem to have much an effect on him.

His cancer was Stage 4 – terminal – but he seemed like he was in good spirits. Maybe it gave us a false sense of security, made it seem like we had more time. Like there would be plenty of time to catch up.

There wasn’t.

When I would go to visit my parents, it was usually on a Sunday. I’d head out early afternoon, hang out all day eating more than I needed to, and then head home in the evening. My dad would pick me up from the subway, and he would drop me off there again at night.

Me and DadOver the last few years, those were the only times we had alone together. We never went anywhere just the two of us. We would just have 20 minutes in a car, every week or two.

When we would get to the station, my dad would hug me goodbye. It was usually the only time we would hug.

It reminded me of when I was a kid and my dad would pick my mom up from work. I was obsessed with the Beach Boys and had a bunch of their best-of albums on cassette. I would sit there singing along to every word while my dad patiently sat there through yet another off-key rendition of “Help Me Rhonda.”

Every time my dad would drop me off at the subway this winter, I always thought, ‘this could be our last car ride together.’

One day, it was.

Over the winter months, I noticed my dad looking tired, older, but it wasn’t until I started looking at photos from the past couple years that I realized he actually looked sick. I guess when these things are happening in front of you, you don’t notice them right away.

The last Sunday we spent together at home was Easter. When I hugged him goodbye, I could feel the bones in his back. We’d hardly spoken that day, even though there were so many things I wanted to say. But he was tired, and seemed like he just wanted to watch TV. I sketched a picture of him as he sat there, watching golf.

The weekend before my dad died, I wrote him a letter. I’d wanted to give him one all winter, but hadn’t been able to bring myself to write it. At first, I’d just wanted to write, “I love you,” because we hadn’t said it to each other in years. I actually can’t remember when we’d stopped. Probably sometime in my early teens.

I knew he loved me, though. I never questioned that. And I loved him – so much so that sometimes, when I would think about him, I would get tears in my eyes. But he didn’t know that, and I wanted him to.

When I wrote my letter, I said so much more than I love you. I asked him questions. I told him I felt like there were so many things we didn’t know about each other, and that I wished we did. I asked him if he was spiritual. I asked him if he ever wondered things about me.

I told him that I was sad we could never know each other as anything other than father and daughter, because I was so curious about how other people saw him. I would love to be able to travel back in time and be one of his drinking buddies in the ‘50s, or be one of his siblings so that I could understand him as a brother.

 

The night I wrote the letter, I had a dream I was in a cabin, lying in the top bunk of a bed. My dad climbed the ladder, popped his head up, and said, “It’s time for me to go.”

I woke up, heart pounding, terrified that something had happened. I’d been sleeping with my phone in my room, which I don’t normally do, but no one had called.

I was afraid I wouldn’t have time to give him the letter. I’d planning on visiting him that day, anyway, so I knew I had to do it then. Time was running out.

I didn’t want him to read it in front of me, or anyone else. I wanted it to be just for him, when he was alone, so I told him not to show it to my mom.

Later that night, I called him and he’d read it. He said it was very nice. He didn’t answer the questions in it, but he said he loved me, and asked if I was mad at him and my mom.

“No, why?” I asked. “Because we didn’t give you brothers or sisters.”

“No,” I said. “Of course not.”

We told each other “I love you” every day after that.

I was relieved it wasn’t too late.

I was just coming out of band practice when my mom called. The hospital had said they were keeping an eye on my dad, that they would call in the middle of the night if we needed to come.

I packed a bag and called a cab. “This is it,” I thought, just like I’d rehearsed it in my head for all those years.

Except nothing happened the way I expected it would.

While I sat on my phone, emailing my boss to let her know I wouldn’t be in the next day, cancelling lunch plans I’d made with a friend, putting a weekend photo shoot on hold, the driver kept asking me for directions.

He had no idea how to get to the highway, even. I just wanted to focus on clearing my schedule and then stare at the window. Instead, I was navigating him away from the St. Lawrence Market and towards the Gardiner.

Several wrong turns later, we were finally at my parents’ house. Two of my dad’s sisters were staying at the house. They were drinking wine. I poured myself a glass, suddenly exhausted.

My boyfriend came by soon after. By 11:30, my eyes were burning, I was so tired, but he was getting a headache and was going to sit up for a while. We were supposed to sleep in the basement, but I decided to leave him with the TV and sleep with my mom instead.

As soon as I laid down in my dad’s place in bed a huge adrenaline rush kicked in. Any buzz from the wine and any inch of tiredness I’d felt were gone. In their place, a pounding heart. I was completely awake, waiting for the phone to ring.

And then it did.

I was dressed in five minutes. My boyfriend went out the back door to warm up the car, but my mom had set the house alarm and it was triggered when he opened the door.

My mom and my aunts stood in the house in states of half-dress while a ringing filled our ears and a security agent came on over the phone’s intercom. We couldn’t find the password to give him to disable it.

My mom, in frustration, said, “My husband’s in the hospital. I can’t do this right now.”

Instead, she ran up and down the stairs, looking for different pieces of clothing.

We finally got out of the house. It was pouring outside, and freezing.

The hospital was different at night. The ER was open, but my dad’s wing was locked by a security door. We had to find a nurse to let us in. Everything took longer than we expected.

From the time we got the hospital’s phone call to the time we got to my dad’s floor, it was too late. He was gone, and it felt like we’d run into every possible obstacle along the way.

None of it was the seamless experience I’d played in my head so many times before. None of it equated to the moment I’d expected.

I always tell people that things never end up exactly as you think they will. Suddenly, I had to remind myself of that.

There is a belief that sometimes, when a person dies without us beside them, it’s because they didn’t want us to have that memory. It’s not something we are meant to be left with.

It makes me feel better to think about this. It makes me feel better to remember that the last thing my dad and I said was, “I love you.”

Dad and family

For the first few days after my dad died, I felt like I was falling. There were things I couldn’t bring myself to do – like work – but other things I wanted to keep up, because they usually make me feel good.

Like going to the gym. But even there, I would find myself on a machine, suddenly dizzy and thinking I am going to fall and no one is going to understand why.

I didn’t, though. Somehow, I kept standing.

Mornings have been hardest. There’s always that split second when you wake up in the morning and everything is normal and clean and pure, and then you remember what you did the night before or what you need to do today and it all comes crashing in.

Every morning I’ve woken up and remembered my dad is gone.

I’ve been careful about who I accept condolences from. I brush away the ones that seem like superficial small talk. I quickly move the conversation past anything that feels at all insincere.

My dad could detect a bullshitter in a split second. He was a private person, and his death is not something I want to spread thinly through meaningless conversation.

I have also been careful about how much emotion I show to people, because I don’t want them to take these feelings away from me.

As hard as grief is, I want it all. I don’t want a hug. I don’t want anyone to make it all better. I want to cry behind my sunglasses, walking down the street. I cry when I get ready in the morning and leave the tears to dry on my face so I can feel them all day.

I want to hold onto whatever I can – even the pain – because my dad left so little behind. All the questions I had about him are still unanswered. There are no letters, no journals. He didn’t buy much, and he didn’t save much. He had a few clothes and a small amount of jewelry.

I keep his only necklace around my neck now. I took his Sunday school bible, even though he was a lapsed Catholic and he probably hadn’t looked at it in years. But still – why did he keep it? I will never find out.

Most crushing was letting go of his car. My boyfriend had planned to take it, and I was excited that it would stay close to me that way. But transferring a car is more complicated, and costly, than we expected, and he couldn’t take it in the end.

“Okay, that’s okay,” I told him on the phone. As soon as we hung up, I sobbed. The next morning, I cried in the shower.

If I associated anything with my dad, it was that car. My mom doesn’t drive, so it was always him at the wheel. It was always just the two of us on Sundays, and even though the rides to and from the subway station were short, they were ours.

That car held the smallest moments between us – one-armed hugs across the front seats, my bad singing, our last ride together.

And now, like my dad, the car’s gone, too. He had left behind so few possessions, and I’m left with fewer clues about who he was beyond what I already knew about him.

We couldn’t have known, back when we were playing on the living room floor, that there would be any kind of distance between us in the end. But somehow, here it is.

Not that the car would have told me anything, but it’s hard knowing it’s no longer in its place in the driveway. That was always a symbol of home to me – the car in the driveway meant someone was home.

The night my dad died, we stayed in the room for a long time after. I had a pen in my coat pocket so I pulled it out and wrote a note on my dad’s hand.

“Goodbye, Dad,” it said. “I love you. I will see you again.”

And I do, almost every night in my dreams. At least I’ve got those.

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