Friday, March 5, 2010

Staying Connected

My dad died 8 years ago this month. We had just bought our first house, but hadn't taken possession yet, so Jason was over there painting while I was preparing to host our monthly writer's group at our current house. The phone rang and it was my aunt, my dad's sister in law, calling from Victoria. We are not close and had never spoken by phone before. She delivered the news that my dad had died in his bachelor apartment in downtown Edmonton and the police contacted my aunt and uncle as his next of kin. They had no idea how he died, just that the neighbours contacted the police when a horrible smell began to seep into the hallway. Not good news to give or to receive. I will never forget the feeling I had, standing in my living room waiting for writers to arrive, hanging up the phone and staring straight ahead. So many feelings were trying to press to the surface and yet I was cold and numb. A life, over so instantly when the word "dead" comes down the phone line. It felt like a twig snapping in two, marking a moment forever.

I called Jason, shaking, and he said he would come home. Being myself, I insisted he finish painting and that people would arrive any moment for the writer's group, and I'd deal with all of this when the evening was over. At that moment the doorbell rang and it was the first writer, a good friend, who took one look at my pale face and asked me what was wrong. I told her, but said I was fine to run the writer's group, and she gently took me upstairs, made me something hot to drink, and turned people away at the door. Thank God for friends and spouses who know how to handle a crisis when the person involved is in denial. I'll never forget her gentle kindness, and Jason's unflagging support when he got home.

The phone calls one has to make when someone dies are very intense. Each time you are relaying news that no one wants to hear and it changes the person's life forever. I had to make flight arrangements, funeral arrangements, talk to the manager of his apartment, and let people know the details about the service. My siblings helped, but we were all in shock, struggling to move forward with the arrangements. Our relationship with my dad was very complex. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict, sober on an off throughout his life, and he also struggled with mental illness. He had violent mood swings, and when he was off his medication he could make life very, very difficult for everyone. My parents divorced when I was 15, and while that meant my mom could get away from the craziness, as kids we were still connected to him. I would maintain relationship via letters and phone calls and the occasional visit when I was in town, and then there would be some bad incidents, and I would break it off. This was the cycle of my adult relationship with my dad. At the time that he died, we were in an off cycle, but there was no real animosity left. I accepted that he was ill, that he couldn't meet my needs the way I wanted him too, and we more or less agreed to live peaceably with that knowledge.

Jason and I flew to Edmonton to meet with my mom and siblings. Stepping off the elevator in his apartment building, wondering aloud which apartment was his, and then seeing a towel rolled up against the bottom of his door, is a moment forever seared on my memory. All of our hearts dropped an inch or two. The police told us they felt he had been dead for at least two weeks before anyone called them. He had died in bed, watching TV. No one should die with that indignity of not being noticed, but he lived so disconnected to others, and that was the price he paid. We entered his apartment with a deep feeling of dread, our hands over our faces to mask the smell. The police told us they had removed the bed he was lying on, and also a big chunk of the carpet, so the small apartment had a huge hole in the centre. Looking back, it was a surreal experience to pack up someone's life, putting together clues about how he lived at the end, both good and bad. He had sticky notes all over saying he had quit drinking, dated a few days before he died, and on a shelf we found rows of empty alcohol bottles. I get my sense of meticulous organization from my dad, as everything was neat and tidy. Everything I touched I used to connect to him somehow; to attempt to cross the relationship divide that seemed uncrossable at so many points during his life. I said goodbye, over and over again as I cleaned up his life. I said, "Be at peace now. No hard feelings. I'm sorry things weren't better for you here. Be free."

As a family, we worried that no one would come to his funeral. He had hurt a lot of people in the course of his 58 years. We didn't realize how wonderfully kind people are. Our friends came, lots of them, and provided food and drink, surrounding us with affection and care. It was an outpouring of love that helped to heal what was broken during his life and his tragic death. To this day, I am grateful to those friends, for the gift they gave us that day. And when the coroner told us, hours before the funeral, that he died of natural causes, a massive heart attack, I could put that in my eulogy and set everyone's minds at rest.

In many ways, his death was a relief, as he struggled to be happy in this life. It was far easier for me to tell my future children that he was no longer with us, than have to find ways to explain his illness and why he was in and out of our lives. I find now that Ava is older, she asks about him quite a bit. I like to talk about my ups and downs with my dad, and to explain how important it is to understand that some people are sick, and need medication to function in life, and that's okay. When my dad was on his meds, we had the opportunity to form some good memories: shopping trips, meals out, listening to music on his expensive stereo, and lots and lots of movies. When he was off them it was a different story. It's a good starting point to discuss him with Ava, and eventually William, and hopefully teach them compassion for people who are lost deep within themselves.

I would say the moral of this story is to live your life with as few regrets as possible. I wish I had a "normal" dad who was stable and involved in my life. I missed out on that and my personality reflects that loss, but you can't change what happens to you. We must make the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in. I had the best relationship possible with my dad, and therefore felt at peace when he was gone. I reached out at times, and pulled away at times, but we never fully lost our connection with each other. We had many rocky moments, but some good times too, and those memories are important for me to dust off once in a while and remember. It's important to stay connected to people, to know and be known by your family and circle of friends. We all invest in each other, and these investments increase the value of our lives. My dad chose to stop investing in people, to pull away and hide, and the result was a tragic and lonely death. It's a good reminder of how valuable our relationships are, and even when they are tough and stressful, we must all work to stay connected to each other.

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