January 14th, April 5th and 9th, June 29th, October 16th, November 17th. These are dates that give me pause; one of them is also the June 29th person’s birthday. I don’t hate them, they are only calendar days after all, it’s what those dates represent. I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to those people. These are now negative days, ones that I will inevitably find myself just thinking about how much I miss the person or people who died on that day, and right now none more so than January 14th.
That date was this year, 2023. When I went to bed in the early morning hours of a Friday night, I had no way of knowing that 100 kilometers away two large pieces of my soul had just died. I would find out later that day: Saturday January 14th we learned that the house those souls lived in burned down overnight. Two bodies were found. It was in the news.
There was the horrible task of calling me after confirming with the police that this indeed was our family that had died, telling me what happened and letting me know that police were on their way to talk to me. They arrived not too long after, but long enough for me to start wondering why, how did this possibly happen? How come they didn’t get out? I’m still wondering that because at the time the fire probably started, they would both likely have still been awake. The policemen were kind and explained as much they could and left me a card with a number to call if I need victim services. The reality of it all hadn’t sunk in yet so I did speak to them clearly.
Then I thought about work – I’d have to be off, how long is a question but definitely for the allowed week. I notified my boss and the person who would have to fill in for me and I put my out of office on. By this time reality was starting to hit, so the phone number I gave them was gibberish but at least the information in the email wasn’t.
Nobody wants to receive an email like that and my boss called me to let me know they got the message. It isn’t easy getting news like this and it is difficult certainly for anybody who knows you well but isn’t in your personal sphere; how much do you ask and how much should a person tell? Anyway, that was work and one thing I knew for sure was that there would be no one week off and trying hard to muddle through after that. This time these losses would blow up my world in ways that would go on forever. One of the two bodies was my former husband who I had been close to for 40 years and who was the father of my two children, the other was my youngest child, my baby. My son.
When something like this happens, time passes in unusual ways and at first you’re sort of lucid as the shock keeps the hurt from sinking in too deeply. It’s that initial period when between the tears you phone or meet with people to make arrangements and the like. My daughter, son-in-law, spouse and I spent the next week dealing with the various people we needed to immediately, such as the funeral director and notifying whatever we could figure out since we didn’t have the usual paperwork to go on with the fire destroying everything. We divided the tasks of father and son between us; they were living a simple life with little to speak of and so it was figuring out what to do exactly and then doing that which is what we were doing (and still are, two months later).
That’s the administrative end of things. By far the harder part is the mental and emotional toll that a sudden passing causes. I won’t speak for my daughter as she has her own story to tell if she wants to. Mine though, is my own and it is very complicated indeed.
There are two things that I do want to share: one is that while my husband and I didn’t work as a couple, we started off as, and always were, friends.
My son and I had been very close until he became upset with me about some things he heard. He didn’t like my explanation and decided to stop talking to me a few short years ago. I kept the door to communication open and was waiting for the day when we could clear the air. All I ever did – as his mother – was with his best interests in mind, even if on the surface it might not have seemed that way. It’s the underlying reasons why I did things the way I did was what he was missing.
However, because I was dealing with adult decisions that as my child he didn’t need to worry about, that bothers me. Probably we would have worked it out in time. The thing is, I’ll never know. That hurts me so much right now, this unfinished business. If there is karma, I hope whoever told that stuff to him is held in some way accountable for the harm those words caused us, and that they learn the power of forgiveness.
Relationships are messy. They can be glorious, wonderful exaltations of joy, comfortable spaces of love and quiet understanding, whirlwinds of activity, times of despair and even loneliness, compassionate acceptance, places for growth and sometimes, darkness and resignation. The main element underlying all of that is love. Whatever else and regardless of how things were in whatever moment there was that. I will always be grateful that for all of my life, there have always been people who cared and for whom I could care even if that circle of caring was small as it is now, or big as it has been.
Death is unfortunately something I am well acquainted with. My mother was in her 40s when she had me so from a very young age I was going to funerals for great-aunts and other people, sometimes friends of my mother’s, sometimes relatives I didn’t know I had. I grew up with tales of people long gone. I thought I had no grandparents until my paternal grandfather was dying and I was introduced to him.
I learned then of what I think of as our family curse, people getting cut out of the circle. I’ll never know what the issue was between my dad and his father since they are both gone now. I’m left with one memory of my granddad: he and I sitting at his kitchen table talking. I don’t remember what we talked about but I do remember that he looked like a smaller version of my dad with a larger nose. I don’t think that’s how he would have liked to be remembered by his granddaughter.
The sad thing is the same thing happened with my father and my immediate family. There were good reasons for my parents to separate – this was a regular event in my life, his moving in and out. When I was 15 it was the final event, and he was effectively cut off from one side of the family. I listened to him, set some boundaries and told him to treat me like a friend because laying down the law on a 15-year-old me just wasn’t going to cut it. He agreed and we were very close for the next two decades, with me acting as a kind of middle person between the warring sides. I didn’t like it but it meant something to me that people weren’t told that he was dead when he wasn’t. Some went so far as to only refer to him as “him,” said in a venom-dripping tone – something I really disliked.
My mother was a kind soul who never spoke about him like that, thankfully. She was always sad that it finally ended because she was faithful and truly believed her High Anglican teachings that marriage was for life. It was other people who did that. At the time it felt mean to me and the people doing that lost 20 years of his life. There were family members he only met when he was dying and the swords were laid down. A very familiar modus operandi for us it seems.
I will accept a lot of things. Being mean, rude or disrespectful aren’t included in that acceptance. That’s where I draw the line.
I do believe in looking at as many sides of an issue as you can, in seeing how a difficult person can fit in my life and if it’s too disruptive, how to comfortably deal with that and not cause harm to my immediate family. I will never avoid someone because of their marital status, legal sexual proclivities (it’s none of my business), sexual orientation, their opinion about abortion access, contraception use and when it’s allowed, beliefs about sex before marriage, race, politics, religion, age, mental state, physical state, drug usage, their fondness for alcohol, gambling habits, spending habits, the list goes on.
I may not like what someone is doing, it may not be anything I would do myself, but I will never hold it against them unless they are harming people. But if they ask, and I can help with getting help, I will. It hurts me to think there are people who just can’t be in my life because they are nasty to me or mine. It also makes me sad that people can be mean to those they should be compassionate to but there’s nothing I can do to change peoples’ opinions of me or any one else. It has to be them opening their hearts to learn to accept differences in others. If there’s anything that bothers me the most in this life, it’s that.
I’d rather be alone than tolerate verbal abuse and meanness. I’ve left jobs and relationships because of that crossed line but all things considered, that’s a pretty low bar. If I have a wish it’s that people remove societal, religious or personal glasses and look at people for who they are. I like to think they’d be surprised and maybe learn to love someone they didn’t think they could before.
For me it’s these differences that makes relationships so interesting and broadens my perspective. That’s a good thing I believe. Being open to questioning rules and convention is how growth happens. Rules and convention are meant to fit a certain time and place and it is only right that as changes happen those rules be revised or even tossed out if they are no longer necessary. It’s for this reason that while I am spiritual, I walked away from organized religion. Until it shows the compassion that is preached and the followers have empathy for everyone, I consider it to be too hypocritical for my taste. But that’s me. Feel free to follow whatever religion (or none) if you choose to, even if it’s the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Just don’t force me to follow your rules. My missing two lived every inch of their lives being themselves no matter what. I am proud of them for that.
My son and his father didn’t have a religious bone in their bodies. And that’s fine. We respect that and we will arrange a celebration of life when the snow has melted and the summer sun has warmed the earth, flowers and trees in full bloom, when life is present. The earth and water won’t take their ashes right now so we heal ourselves and wait.
There’s a lot of waiting right now. For documents sent to the no longer existing address that’s been forwarded to me or my daughter, depending who the mail is addressed to. For answers to questions we can’t easily solve. There’s a lot of cold fact stuff, applications, dealing with banks and various accounts, CRA. So far the bank has been the worst. Important information like what the email address associated with the account was so that I’d know which of the several email accounts that I know of for my son was his main one weren’t allowed to be given to me. I asked for a one-year statement. No dice. Privacy act. Even repeatedly saying, he’s dead and everything went in the fire didn’t phase them. CRA isn’t much better, I wasn’t able to answer the qualifying questions because again, the fire burned everything so I filled in a form, made myself a representative (but can’t link his account yet) and I have no idea what is in his My Account. So yeah.
How do you explain to people that this name or number was my son, the child I gave birth to and held in my arms and helped him grow up? That there is no way possible to say how it feels to lose a child, when he was just starting his adult life, still discovering who he is? You can’t. But this unknowable feeling is what I am going through right now and it is my life sentence.
For now though my main thing has been processing all of the memories – both good and bad – that suddenly rise up in my mind. Lovely mommy things, sweet moments of a friendship and a marriage when things were still good, and the flip side, when things didn’t go so well with both them. Maddening things. Things that can never be resolved.
When I go to sleep and if I wake in the middle of the night, I think about the fire, the two of them, what might have happened, how could it be they didn’t just open that big window in my son’s room and jump out….circular thoughts that lead to remembering more moments that were buried and some of the more unpleasant things in our relationships. I have 9 hour sleeping times when it’s particularly bad, 7 if I’m able to brush it aside and go back to sleep. Yes, there’s nightmares too. I have PTSD, have had from before this and here it is, showing itself in all it’s glory. Someday soon I will talk to a professional again to help me deal with it. But for now, I have been spending my time doing whatever it takes to be functional in the world again, to hold conversations without crying, to laugh and make jokes more often. Slowly the sharpness of the pain is fading and this past week I felt almost normal.
More normal means facing the world again, going back to work, dealing with difficult people, not taking sharp words as daggers but more like annoying pin pricks. Nothing personal, just business. Soon.
While I will always have unfinished business with my son, my own I will try to continue. Paintings, five books, two or three illustrated videos of my work that I’ve been planning, the rest of my life. One moment at a time, one breath at a time, stretching I hope into happy years. Hope.
Hope for myself, hope for my family still here, hope that light will eventually break through the darkness. My quiet days of coming to grips with the loss and turning into acceptance. I will never forget, as much as I have never forgotten those gone before. You never do “get over” such a loss. It just gets less difficult, and that happens more quickly when the stress isn’t too much. For me, that’s usually people. I can’t ask people to change, but I can try to be understanding. I wish the same for you, and –
That if you can’t be loving, at least be kind.
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love never comes to an end. 1st Corinthians 13: 4-8
© Catherine M. Harris, March 5, 2023