Autumn is here. For me, death and autumn are like chocolate and peanut butter, they go hand-in-hand. Only I don’t crave death. No one actually wants to see death and autumn up close. Mourning is among the crappiest experiences in the human condition. I should know. I’m an orphan now. My dad is dead.
Grief is selfish, of course. We’re sad for us. They’re gone. They’re at the big card game in the sky or muddling with worms. They’re not broken up about it at all.
Crass, I know, but true. Either they’re gone forever, or they’re totally jazzed in the afterlife, having left their cumbersome earthling bodies for one that walks through walls and transcends time. What’s not to like?
My dad’s dead. Eight days now. Eight whoa-head-spinning what-the-hell-happened days.
Ask any travelling nomad and they’ll probably tell you that death of a loved one was their number-one fear. Having my father die while I was abroad was my nightmare. To say I’m desolate is an understatement. I’m… just lost now.
Death sucks for me. But, for dad, if there’s an afterlife, he’s laughing it up. Gone is his body that turned him into a different guy. In his heart, he was happy-go-lucky. In his body, he was a prisoner. It didn’t work for him anymore. From his hands to his feet to his neck, everything fought back, daily. I don’t know how he had the resolve to face what days he saw. I understand why that resolve finally fell away.
A Good Man Gone
In his prime, he befriended nearly any person he met. Everyone liked Dad. A teacher, for over 30 years he shaped the hearts and minds of the young in elementary schools in BC. For a few years, when we were children, he taught special needs kids and frequently brought us and even our mom on field trips I vaguely recall. All I remember is I absolutely loved those trips. His class treated me like a queen. Several of them had Down’s Syndrome and both them and Dad taught me that “different” was seldom ever a bad thing.
From Dad I got my gift of reading, and probably my writing skill. He liked to write but never showed it to me. Another gift he gave was my passion for social justice. I remember him organizing in politics and other causes. His organizational knack made him a prime ingredient in the language exchanges of both Mexican and Japanese students when we were kids. Hosting foreign students was another way I learned to see all people for who they are – not their skin colour or how they spoke.
An Unusual Upbringing
Our “diversified” upbringing continued until my parents separated at 15. In 1985 and 1986, a chief in the Nootka tribe befriended my dad at the beach. Talk to White Rock locals from the ‘80s and they probably remember “Chief Nick” carving native masks along the water. For the summer of ’86, Nick took shelter for work in our basement. Payment for said space came in the form of a few masks, which I still own.
Also around that time, my dad bought me a book about American slavery and the Underground Railway to Canada. I was 12. After his hockey tournament weekend, he gave it to me as his “away” gift. I mean, at age 12, that’s a heck of a headtrip. It’s one thing if you’re 12 and you come across the book in a store and start asking questions about it. It’s quite another when it’s a gift – where he could have bought anything on planet Earth, and THAT’s what he thought I needed to read about at age 12. It probably changed my life’s trajectory. (Thanks, Dad.)
We also grew up with a children’s illustrated book called Nazi Gold, in which a bunch of Norwegian kids smuggle the country’s gold out from under the occupying Nazi eyes. It was a true story. But we were 5 and 7 and we knew who Nazis were. In a couple years, an archeologist named Indy would encounter Nazis in chasing the lost ark of the covenant, but in 1979, we were ahead of the game. I have no doubt that Dad bought us that book, not Mom.
Dad’s Superhero Talent: Unable to See Our Faults
As I grew up, I’d hear stories about what a softie my Dad was. Like how he stopped to give a woman a lift in a rainstorm and found out to his literal, actual shock, that she was a sex worker who was standing in the rain for “business”. He couldn’t make that jump in logic because it meant seeing someone as less than, well, a child of God, I guess.
He really saw the best in everyone. The idea of hating someone based on colour, sexuality, or beliefs just baffled him. He kept asking me regularly if my best friend had come out to his parents as gay yet. He so wished my friend would. “You know, I would love him anyway if he were my son. He needs to give them a chance,” he’d say.
So for anyone who sees me as informed, open-minded, well-written, well-spoken, easy to talk to, empathetic or possessing any other positive social quality, look to my parents, because they were both ground zero, where all that was nurtured into me.
Smarter Than He Seemed
Were my parents perfect? Far from it. But they were decent, kind folks who were genuinely loved and lost by so many other people.
The older he got, the heavier Dad got, and the greater his empathy became for others. He understood suffering, pain, and being different. He also knew what it was like to be loved, but it was so important to him that everyone think he was a great guy. It was great pride he took in being well-liked, because he worked hard to be friendly and to know about others.
If I told him what I was up to with friends or anyone, he’d try to guess the name of who I meant, and he could run down the whole list of my Facebook friends. His online comments were insane with horrible typing, thanks to fat fingers and bad eyes. You’d never know the man behind the 40-dot ellipses or 7 commas in a row was the proud owner of a Master’s degree in education.
Work was never something my father avoided. I always thought retiring was his fatal flaw. The man worked like no other, and sitting around did him no favours. Before he married my mom at age 24, he proudly served in the air cadets, which he continued for a few years. Like me, a pivotal time for him came when he lived in the Yukon at age 21, teaching while living in a cabin. Even as a kid, he loved to work. He got up at 4am to plow the field and he loved doing it.
Around 1970, he had a scooter crash that saw him lying in traction for over 100 days. The knee job was botched and he slowly lost his athleticism and activity that made him such a vibrant man. When he hit 60, it was the beginning of a long, slow decline. Like most kids, I failed to see who he used to be as the new guy took over. Gosh, I’d like to have that foolish perspective back.
When my mother died, I had hoped there was an afterlife so she’d still be in my life in some way. But for my father, my hope for an afterlife is so he can enjoy weightlessness and movement. I want him to glide and feel joy, things that seemed to slip away in the last decades. I hope he’s up there doing cartwheels and loop-de-loops.
Hindsight and Foolishness
My travel life gave me something new to talk to my dad about. We had our best conversations of our life during the last year. I used to say to friends we had nothing in common, my dad and I. He loved hockey, cards, sports, crib, bingo, and I loved everything else.
It’s only in death, though, that I now realize the thing we had in common was everything that I am. I’m the writer, the thinker, the photographer, the history fan, and the social justice fighter that I am because that’s what I inherited from my father. Why did it take me so many years, and death, for me to finally learn this?
As children, we’re innately stupid about our parents. So many of us lose them with regrets because we don’t think of questions to ask them that allow us to dig beneath the surface of who they are. I am as guilty of that as anyone. I was going to fix that this October when I came home. Now I’ll never have that chance. Do not wait. I implore you.
As I mourn my father’s death, it’s because I had unfinished business. Please don’t leave words unsaid. It’s awkward, but say them now. I will take my regrets and unfinished business to my own grave on day. That’s that.
But On We Go
For him, I am happy his suffering is over. Like everything else my dad did, at the end it felt like he was living for us. That’s no way to live.
Today marks exactly a year since I became homeless by choice in favour of travelling the world. No one on Earth was a bigger cheerleader than my father. I will deeply miss calling him with updates or telling him of griefs and laughs I didn’t share publicly. But towards the end he couldn’t even hold up a phone for long.
I now realize that was a sign the end was near. After all, if my father couldn’t reach out and connect with people, he couldn’t be himself. He loved humans. He never forgot a name or a face, he was just brilliant that way. I’m the complete opposite and it saddens me. We both speak well in public and communicate terrifically. But when it came to people, he could remember everything you told him about you. Not me, though. Not like Dad.
My sister-in-law said to me after his death that as dads go, my dad was “one of the greats”. I can’t argue that.
My Time to Be My Father’s Daughter
So, I think this is the start of when my writing takes a turn. My travels now will likely be even more introspective and definitely harder. Being alone will be deafening, grief-wise. It will be the opposite of how I dealt with my mother’s passing. I don’t know how you stand in a European ancient town’s river valley filled with beauty in autumn and not get overwhelmed with moments of grief. To not share that with friends is sad, to not share it with dead parents is gut-wrenching.
That’s the soul-crushing thing in becoming an orphan. There is no better way to embrace pride and satisfaction than to share it with parents. My first phone call with good news was always my dad. When they’re gone, nothing can ever match their joy in your accomplishments. Especially if you choose to not have children of your own, like me.
Before I went abroad, I believed travelling would be my master class in writing. Sadly, travelling while mourning my dad’s death will be the master class unlocked.
Ashes to Ashes
My dad will be cremated soon and laid to rest down in Carterville, Illinois, over the winter, joining my stepmother’s family plot. I like that idea. They accepted him and loved him for the lovable old fella he was.
And me, well, I’ll be roaming the world with fewer reasons to come home. That makes me sadder, to lose my familial connection to Vancouver.
I will keep that social passion of my dad’s, and I hope to become more of his daughter in my ability to befriend strangers while I travel. What an adventure I would have if I could channel my dad’s ability to make friends with everyone. What an adventure, indeed.