Resolutions

I did something last night that I haven’t done in many years.  I wrote some New Years resolutions.  As I wrote them the memory of previous resolutions bubbled up:  the inevitable quit smoking (I did, 13 years ago), the exercise more (I have a love-hate relationship with exercise), the basic flogging myself for not doing as much of a talent like writing or painting or music, the “get thee to a university” one which I did start 13 years ago and gave up on 3 years ago after about 1 year’s worth of courses.  Most of those previous resolutions (and a few I won’t name) are either done or a moot point now.

What could I possible resolve to do now that so much water has passed under my bridge?  Well, there is the small matter of needing to get back down to at least the weight I was when I moved to New Brunswick.  I have been exercising for half an hour a day on the eliptical but recently upped that to an hour after realizing I haven’t lost anything, I just look more toned.  The real truth of the weight that isn’t normally on me has to do with stopping my night time cleaning (1 hour a night for 4 nights then 4 hours on the weekend – worked out to about 10 km of walking every week). Add to that the fact that I had to stop chewing my beloved nicorette (I have an off and on again love affair with that gum) because I simply didn’t have money to buy it any more since last February and has meant that little bags of candy replaced the gum.  Not that wise a choice I think.

So one resolution is really two; watch what I eat and cool it with the candy for snacks.  I need to go back to feeling like myself again.  For someone who has spent most of her life on the almost underweight side of things, these past few years of peri- and post-menopause weight gain is a little alarming really.  Annoying most certainly.  Jim says I’m not fat.  Bless his heart.  I’m not obese, true, but still more than the upper limit of healthy for my height.

The others are more specific and boring so I won’t put them here, except for one.  I will start to write in a journal again.  I feel this urge to put pen to paper and say what’s inside in a place that isn’t in the ether.  I used to write a journal; my first one I got when I was quite young:  7? 8? It was purple and had a gold lock.  I still have it and I have the series of journals I wrote ever since.

There’s the one I wrote all in code because my sister had prying eyes and was happily telling whoever would listen all the awful (in her mind) things I did.  I wish I had the code for that one, I have no idea what I said for about a year or two when I was around 9.  I have one from my teenage years that is pink and is really a long and thin lined notepad that I folded over and tied up with a pink wavy ribbon from a sewing project I did.  I have the ones from a time in my teenaged years that was pretty dark, and the slightly less dark ones when I was alone and single but on my own and hopeful.  I have the ones from my mid- to late teens where I fell in love and my friends were closer to me than any relative could ever be.  That is until they disappeared or pulled a nasty.  I think we’re equal numbers on those two events.

Then there’s the broken hearted one where for years I fended off well meaning people in my life trying to tell me to get back together with my high school sweetheart.  They never could understand why I broke up with him and rather than being supportive and sympathetic I got chastized for doing that.  This was the beginning of what has been a long history of that kind of “help” in my life.  So.  I did what was the best thing:  don’t give them the ammunition to use against me because the more I tried to explain the more it became all me.  Can I, in the interest of honesty and the passage of time now say why, lo these 34 years later?  Why not?

Here goes dear well meaning people.  The truth on my first love of my life:  He fooled around on me with one of my best friends.  They thought I was clueless enough not to catch jokes between them when we were all riding in a car one summer day.  Boyfriend did not realize that women recognize another’s scent.  I didn’t want to believe until I did and blasted that friend with angry words.  I have said there’s only two or three people I would rather never speak to again in my life.  She’s one.  As for boyfriend, so in love was I, I forgave him.  It was difficult but we were “The Couple”.

Sadly that forgiveness and trust was misplaced because he thought forgiving meant it was okay.  There were others.  One called me on the telephone saying, “I know you’re not going out anymore but you’re still friends so can I ask you to tell him to stop calling me?  Tell him I’m not interested?”  I just said, “Actually we are still going out.”  And hung up.

Another time a friend I had when I was about 6 and hadn’t seen since then came up to me in a parking lot and said hi.  After a few minutes of chatting and isn’t it nice to see you again (from me) he told me, “You’re going out with that XXXX XXXX person right?”  I said I was.  He told me to tell him to stop bothering his girlfriend who works at Brown’s Cleaners, she’s really not happy with that.  A heart sinking moment.  I mumbled thanks and watched my very young childhood buddy’s grown up back walk away.  He didn’t want to know how I was.  He just wanted my person to leave his person alone.

It wasn’t long after that that I said enough already.  A relationship can slip away in moments or they can explode in one bright flash.  The end was more like a death to me.  One morning I woke up and realized that I simply didn’t love him anymore.  I’d had enough.

I honestly wish I hadn’t had to defend my decision.  I did, without telling the whole truth because a part of me didn’t want to dim their idea of this friendly fellow they liked, but mostly because I knew that it had been decided that I was what? Flighty?  A slut?  Who knows and what could I have said that would have made anyone say that I was right when they’d already decided I was wrong?

My journals kept on until the time my son was a toddler.  Then I worried more about what I wrote because some things that had bothered me for about nine years were wearing on my soul.  I couldn’t write the words for fear they’d be read.  And besides, I had already written them when I was single and when on one of those weeks my husband was out of town I decided to read them I realized how very little had changed since that time.  I was foolish to think I could change someone, and foolish to think I wouldn’t change.

I did, and like my first love, there did come a time when all those words didn’t matter any more and I simply gave up trying.  I had no more love to give for love is a vessel that needs to be replenished once in a while by its source.  My love was for my children and when I could I said good bye because I also knew from experience that children learn from what they see and I didn’t want them to think that relationships are all about anger and the silence in between.

It’s been fourteen years since then and oh, I’ve made a stab at a written diary but found that blogs and my web site filled the gap nicely.  But it kind of doesn’t.  There’s things I’m not allowed to say, things that I shouldn’t say. There’s no continuity.  There’s no way to download one of my blogs for instance, and I really want to port those posts to somewhere else so even if it’s on a memory stick I can go back to them and read them.  Perhaps it will become a day or two cut and paste project for me.

I keep my diaries in a locked box, have done for years.  All my teenaged angst, all my childhood frustrations and wondering.  My hatred for “shepherd’s cack” that they served oh so often when I was ten or so and going to Elmwood School.  My elation at winning awards or happiness at making a new friend.  It’s all there.

So now that I’m in the autumn of my life, I do feel the desire to continue on with that.  Because you see, the more life appears to change, the more it stays the same.  I know there’s nothing I can do to stop some not-so-well meaning things that have been said about me but at least my children are now old enough to ask what is the truth.  No, I didn’t cuckhold my husband (and no, the person who relayed this doesn’t speak Victorian English but I know people who do), and yes, I can cook.  Pretty well actually.  I just don’t invite people over to prove it that often.  My plate is full with life and living it. These are thoughts I am saying outloud today.

My little daily thoughts and angst that can’t be shared with the world at large (at least for now) deserve a place.  And the stuff that can?

It becomes an essay.  Like this one.    To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men,   “The truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  Well, maybe you can and maybe some truths arrive in small doses on blank pages late at night.

So with firm resolution, I will begin 2016 by turning over an old leaf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Babies From The 30s: Saying Goodbye

My dad was born in 1931. He was a product of the Great Depression, an Irish Catholic boy raised in Lowertown Ottawa, in an area that was expropriated in the 1960s in one of the government follies of the time (Pickering comes to mind as another). He was born in a decade when jobs were sparse and money was tight. There wasn’t much to fall back on then; no unemployment insurance, no health care. Family and church were basically what you had. You made do to make a dollar stretch. Hand-me-down clothes were what people wore, and what you had was fixed or mended. You walked, or if you had a bike, rode. If you were fortunate enough to pay trolley fare, well you took the OTC. My grandfather was an OTC trolley driver.

My mother told me stories of marks made by transients on the fence posts, of her mother keeping a pot of soup on the stove to feed people who came to the door. This essay isn’t about my mother though, she is older and of the post WW1 generation. She also came from the other side of the tracks, an upper middle-class “Anglo-Irish” Anglican. Her story is for later. But, to set the stage, this was a time of iceboxes in the kitchen, of outhouses and indoor plumbing if you weren’t poor, of telephone party-lines and operators who answered when you picked up the receiver (or the horn if you still had one of those crank kind of phones) with an accented “Numba please!”. It was an age where milk was still delivered to the door in glass bottles, where Sunday was for church and family, where women cooked, sewed their own clothes if they knew how, and children were children, with not too much of a voice, certainly not with any authority figure. Spankings and the strap were still a discipline possibility. Family secrets were never told to outsiders and radio and newsprint were the media. There was no t.v. then, cinema was king. The “talkies” had supplanted silent movies, but many of the stars were still thriving: think Charlie Chaplin, Lawrence Olivier, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore to name a few. Big band, swing and jazz was the music of the day, prohibition was still on in the US (until 1933) but the only province in Canada that still had it was P.E.I. when the 1930s started.

march to ottawa 1935

When my dad was growing up, a lot more was expected of them than now. It wasn’t uncommon for children to leave school as soon as they could to help out on the family farm, or for city folks like my family was, to help meet expenses by working. At the time, to have a high school diploma wasn’t essential – it carried as much weight as a BA does now, which meant you could get a good job with a grade 13 (in Ontario) diploma – it was called a Senior Matriculation. My dad rode his bicycle as a courier when he was a teen, and he worked as a page in Parliament. By now this was the 1940s, but he was of the group of people whose older siblings or cousins were in World War II. By the time he was old enough, it was over. I’ve often wondered how easy it was for that group to get their first jobs just as the soldiers were coming back. Given that the woman who were holding down the jobs until the men came back mostly lost theirs, and unmarried women were expected to leave their jobs when they married, what did they do?

One thing I do know is this is a group who had a sense of adventure and they made do for themselves. My dad took a job that had him working in Churchill, Manitoba where he saw the northern lights and carried a flashlight when he went out at night because you wanted to make sure you saw the polar bears at a distance. He got his driver’s licence by buying a beer for the driver examiner (something others have told me did similar things). They were a little bit more rebellious than their war-aged previous generation; not quite as rebellious as the 40s, 50s and 60s generations after. Their rock stars were people like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day – I grew up hearing those albums played enough I got tired of them. While I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate Doris Day the way my dad did (oh, let’s face it – not at all), I have come to like hearing Frank Sinatra now because he does remind me of my dad.

My children’s grandmother is still with us, but her health is not that great. She is at a stage in her life where she is being cared for at home as long as can be done by her son, grandson, and her best friend. I loved hearing her stories of growing up on a farm in New Brunswick; of riding horses bareback and locking the door with a knife if there were ever a need to lock a door (once she remembered an escaped criminal), of a time when good girls married, unwed mothers went away and babies were put up for adoption, where school after grade 6 was optional depending on how much you were needed on the farm. For them, they weren’t rich, they age lobster sandwiches for lunch and were embarrassed with their “garbage food” sandwiches because lobster just wasn’t something that you ate if you had money. Funny how tastes change. She was a trail blazer, going to Montreal to nursing school after her doctor suggested it. She kept working as a nurse after she married; it was her career and that was that. In her 40s, a young widow, she got her BScN. I will always remember her swinging an axe as she chopped wood below the porch; we walked lobsters on the porch prior to cooking them, and we chased bats that got in from the stove and hung out on the curtains. I would joke that her answer to everything was kerosene because it seemed it was her answer to everything. If the world had had a huge calamity twenty years ago I know that she would have been more than capable of surviving in that cottage and she’d teach us all to do the same.

Oh, and Russell. I can’t forget my dear friend Russell. He died in 1986 at age 50. He was like my father, a world traveler but he did get a degree – never quite finished his PhD. He was raised in Northern Ontario on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, a quiet Catholic boy who loved to sing. He had stories of digging out of the house when snow went up past the door sill, and he, like my father left home as soon as he could to work and for him to get educated. Russell got involved with the CCF and knew Stephen Lewis. He lived in Africa, the US, Granada and Brazil – he had real shrunken heads hanging from hooks – they had eyebrows I remember. He loved to play his ukulele and sing in a deep baritone voice; one of his favorites was The Bastard King of England. To this day I miss Russell, and like so many of his generation he couldn’t understand why I didn’t just hop on a plane and follow my dreams. I’ve tried, and have succeeded in a minor way but nothing like him. Or my dad. Or Christine.

These are our parents, those of us who are in their 40s and 50s now. These are the people who shaped us, who taught us to fix cars with a wrench, a prayer and a bit of duct tape. They smoked like chimneys and drank and didn’t apologize. They just did their thing and expected us to understand that. It seems silly, but now they are leaving us through time and disease, oh how I wish I could go back and do like they did; what is it about my generation that we always had to be told what the rules were and how to go about things?

Anyway, lately I’ve heard too much about losses related to this generation. So for now, I remember them with one of my dad’s favorite songs; and in particular Russell who passed 29 years ago on June 29th with a song of my own that I wrote to help get over his death.

And here’s Russell’s song (click the link below):

Russell’s Song

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike2.5 Canada License.

Russell’s Song
1986
Russell’s Song, vocals and lyrics, sung and played by Catherine M. Harris

There’s a movie that was released in 2014 that captures this generation beautifully – it is “Still Mine” and can be seen here: https://youtu.be/EXfLcK-p8K0

Twenty Years

Dad and I, 1988

Twenty years is a generation.  I know this because my son who was born eighteen years ago is a man.  He could have a child himself.  You haven’t met him because he was born after you passed away, and I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to know him because there is an awful lot of you in him, I see that more and more as he grows older.  He has a touch of your dark sense of humour, and like you, people love him for that.

I could say I don’t know where the time has gone but I’d be lying, I do.  In that time my little girl became a teen, then a university student, and now is working as nurse and about to married.  I had a son who is finishing up high school.  He lives with his dad not far from me.  There’s a long story about how he came to be there but towards the end of high school when he was living with me things got a little out of hand shall we say, and it’s hard to change when the world around you hasn’t.  So we changed his world and he’s happier for it I think.

Dad, I moved three times since you passed.  I moved out with the kids once in Mississauga, then came home two years later.  I wonder if that owl that showed in the tree in front of my window as I was packing to go back to Ottawa finally was you.  I remember looking in that owl’s eyes and how impressed I was when it stretched out its wings.  I don’t know how long the owl stayed there watching me because I had things to do and later when I looked back it had gone.  For all your world travels, oh how you loved Ottawa.

I bought a small house in a small town outside of Ottawa and we stayed there for ten years.  During that time daughter spent most of her time with her dad and while I know in no uncertain terms how some family felt about giving her that choice, there’s a big part of me that says you would have been proud that I respected her enough as person to give her it.  You always were all about people being their own selves, it’s something you did so very well, and something that drove some people absolutely bonkers.

I also think you’d be proud when I left my job after a difficult year and a mistaken job switch.  That I went back to work some months later I’m not sure what you would think – that I took it for help moving to the Maritimes, I guess you’d understand but I also suspect that you’d tell me I’m a little nuts for giving up my freedom to do that.  You know what dad?  You’re probably right, but I like where I’m living now and that’s good.  Freedom will bless me again someday when it does, I’ll stay free.

I wonder what you’d say about my partner who has been with me the same length of time I was married and we’re still together.  There’s things about him you’d love and some things I don’t know if you’d rather say lighten up than understand but that’s okay, I’m sure you’d respect the fact that he knows his own limits and doesn’t impose them on others.  Would he have been a part of the crowd we had back in the 80’s who all hung out together in the Glebe?  Maybe.  He would have fit in well with that eclectic group of musicians, writers, painters and singers.  So yeah, I do think you’d like him and I do think he’d have had fun with us.  I remember all those late nights in peoples’ apartments singing and talking and playing instruments if we had them and laughing.  Oh my God how we laughed.  How about that motley band of us in that six a.m. march down Second Avenue singing, two people carrying a laundry basket between them filled with what?  Food?  Booze?  Probably both.  The people dressed up and on their way to church looking askance at us was priceless.  The party was over and we were all heading back home but those people didn’t know that and it made us laugh all the harder.

By those days you’d long ago stopped being a dad and were a friend.  There was a reason for that that you and I both know.  There was a big fight when I was 15 and you were living on Kilborne Ave.  You tried to impose rules that made no sense (at least to me) and given that they were rules you wouldn’t have made when you were living still with us, I bristled.  I remember the ultimatum:  be my friend or be my father but if you’re going to be a father now, I’m out this door.  You told me you’d love to be my friend and I think a weight was lifted from your shoulders.  You made a good dad, just not a good father if you think of father in terms of setting the rules and attending meetings and things.

You admitted to me later in a night when you were staying with me prior to treatment at Sunnybrook Hospital that you really weren’t a good father and were so glad I chose to be your friend.  Being authoritarian wasn’t a mantle you wore well; being a friend that was another story.  You were loved by many people literally all over world.  That 6 a.m. singing down the street was the same thing you’d done years before with your buddies in Rome.  And with your buddies in Washington after visiting the jazz clubs.  No doubt you did that with one eye out for the polar bears when you were in Churchill, Manitoba.

More than anything, you were really good at accepting people for who they were.  I hope I learned that lesson well and I think I did if you look at the people I’ve been close to; there’s no one social status, or education level or culture.  It’s always been about who you are inside for me.  I couldn’t care less if you’re a PhD or homeless and you didn’t either. You’d be proud of your grandchildren because they’re a whole lot that way too.

When I think of you I think of these vignettes.  Chasing after an Easter hat that blew off my head while we walked to church one windy Sunday when I was three or so; singing duets of songs with you; your pretending to be my partner when we were at a local watering hole and some guy wouldn’t leave me alone – putting your arm around my shoulders and telling the guy to shove off I’m your girlfriend – he did; telling me I had to meet a scientist friend of yours because I’m the only one you knew who could effing understand him (talking about his work); at the hospital in Toronto telling a very cranky nurse who demanded you give her a sample bottle – you told her if she’s bringing him a bottle there better be scotch in it, and her face, oh my God her face – I still laugh thinking of that; the many nights just us two talking about everything, your life and your adventures, triumphs and regrets.  Angry.  I see you angry sometimes and that could be a little scary but with you it was just words.  Helping you see doctors for meetings and when you came home one night and fell in the driveway, cold and bleeding and sore.  I see you sad and lonely when I’d have to take you in to emergency when being bipolar got the better of you.

Most of all though, in my mind I hear your voice.  Soft and mellifluous.  Laughing.  Singing.  When you read a story out loud:  The Raven by Edgar Alan Poe and Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee are two you loved to read to me and I never tired of hearing you do it.  To this day when I read those poems, it’s your voice I hear.

Dad, you were a good artist and a wonderful storyteller.  Throughout your life I tried to get you to do works for public consumption but you steadfastly refused.  You never told me exactly why but I think it’s because you didn’t want the disappointment.  So you didn’t.  This loss to the world is something I took as a lesson to always try anyway, and so I do.  To me, if one person appreciates something I’ve done it’s worth it.

In some ways you were a little broken but you know, we’re all broken.  And for that I love you all the more.

————————-

To my dad, in memory of his passing, April 9, 1995.

Catherine M. Harris (c) 2015

The Mystery of Heart

Well, another creative non-fiction entry to the CBC contest is a non-starter, so here’s my latest essay for your reading enjoyment. A reminder, this is covered by the creative common license for reading purposes only. Any republication or transmission or use of any kind other than a link to this post must be with permission of the author only. Copyright Catherine M. Harris 2014.

The Mystery of Heart

There was a workplace accident today. It made the news. At first I thought, oh, that’s sad, but such things happen. And then the update said the 22 year old man was recovering well and my heart caught in my throat. I quickly texted the young man I thought of, and yes, he was fine. For a few moments prior I worried for my daughter, who, still studying for a final exam and 16 long driving hours away from him could be scared out of her mind if she heard the news report. Were I her, I’d have been. He is her first, maybe only – who knows? – great love, and I remembered from the ashes of a long ago time saying to the first love of my life, “Please don’t die, don’t die on me.”

Looking back it’s a bit silly I know, but I just loved him that much. I loved him so much it hurt, and I loved him so much that the thought of losing him terrified me more than anything I could possibly think of. I was sixteen at the time and when my great love became a little less stellar three years later and had come to the point of who cares, I looked at the void in my heart and pondered – wrongly it turned out – on the fact that my one chance was wasted when I was so young. I have plans to live to a grand old age; older than my great-grandfather who was still swinging his cane at cars in his nineties.

My father said to me once as I moaned my singlehood, “Have children if you like but for God’s sake don’t get married.” He was a man of black humour and his comments still make me giggle. My mother on the other hand told me on my wedding day when I was twenty-six that marriage is an experience everyone should have, even if it doesn’t work out. The Minister intoned, “Let those whom God hath thrown asunder, let no man join together” and well, maybe they knew something. Regardless of its outcome, this love of my life was my best friend, still is one of my best friends and is the father of my children.

In my darkest days after I left the marriage with two young ones and a bucketload of “if onlys” and after I had long ago decided there was no hope for me ever again, 9-11 happened. I worked very long hours dealing with a Canadian aspect of it when a far away writer friend who lived 50 miles from ground zero and worked for a radio station asked if he could call me so we could just talk. We talked for two hours until the telephone receiver burned on my ear. The sound of his voice made my heart leap; and in that 500 mile, two country divide I found the spark of love again. I was thankful for the reminder that maybe there was hope for me yet, because at that time there wasn’t any possibility he could be anything but a far away friend.

Fate has a way of making things happen when they’re meant to be. I really believe that. Thirteen years later my foreign friend is my common-law spouse; has been for twelve of them. The how that came to be is too long to tell right now but I can say that when we first got to meet in person – quite amazingly actually – we both knew that this was special. There was a magic I can’t explain, and with the passing of the years and many days both good and not-so, we know that for this moment in our lives we are where and with whom we should be.

It takes courage to put your faith and future into someone elses’ hands. Some say it’s easy just to walk away but that isn’t true. It takes perhaps less courage to pledge yourself to another than to say good bye. Your life implodes in ways you don’t expect. Friends and family can disappear. Grudges are held, accusations thrown. And in it all, there’s you. Picking up the pieces, puzzling together a new tapesty of a life which is hard when you can’t see all the parts yet. It’s lonely and not a little scary. Friends may or may not return, family doesn’t always forgive you. That’s just how it goes.

In my era of refinding myself after my marriage dissolved, I turned to an old family mystery. My cane-swinging great-grandfather had a wife and three children, one of whom was my grandfather. When the children were very young their mother went to the States and never came back. Great-grandfather years later asked if she wanted to see her now adult children but she turned him down apparently saying she had a new family. The shame and scandal of this hundred year old divorce became a project for me. I would find out what happened to her and maybe a glimmer of why.

For that I began my ancestral tree, joined lists, scrolled through births and deaths and baptisms, all the stuff of life we leave behind. After several years I finally found the answer. The first hint was the death of a baby we hadn’t known about. The second was a marriage of one of her sisters to an American man a few months before, and the third, the death of her mother very shortly before the baby’s demise. Could it be that post-partum depression, mourning for two and perhaps missing her closest confidante could have sent her away? It was the late 19th century, so it was certainly possible. From my viewpoint in this millennium, I wonder would she be thought of any differently today?

One of my lists provided the answer. She did indeed live with her married sister, worked at a nearby factory and a few years later married someone who also worked there. They lied about their ages, but her parents names were the same and her birth place was right. She listed her status as single on the marriage license. Back then I guess they had to take your word for it. They bought a house and had boarders. I haven’t found any children from this marriage – perhaps she couldn’t have any more. Regardless, they were married for over twenty years and the last I’ve found of her was a phone directory with her name circled and a date. Great-grandma, I want to say I think I understand and I certainly forgive you. Your children turned out very well, and your husband remarried and had a couple more children.

There’s one thing I tell anyone who asks about life decisions. It is: follow your heart. You never know what the next moment will bring or how long you have. And if that heart pulls you 16 hours from home or twelve and another country away take the chance. In the end, the sadness of never knowing what could have been may well haunt you more than the mistakes you make.

We live in a time of safety with warning messages plastered over everything with such words of wisdom like “may cause fire” on a lighter, and we are without a doubt a very judgmental society; just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see that. The thing is, had I played it safe and married my philandering first love I wouldn’t have my wonderful children and I wouldn’t be sharing my life with a very caring man in a city far from home.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating marrying a wreck of a person just because they make something flitter in you. I am saying though that what others think is best for you often times isn’t. When you know it’s right, do what’s right for you. Like my mother said, even if doesn’t work out, it is still worth it. A life well loved is a life well lived indeed.

Laundromat Girl

A small hand clutching a magazine appeared in front of the page of the book I was reading.  Caught up in the story as I was, it startled me a little.  “Read.” A tiny blonde haired girl told me.

 Taking the magazine I could see there wasn’t much worth reading, it was mostly pictures in advertisements, and gently I told her that.  She wasn’t having anything of it.  “Read.”  She repeated.

 So I read.  Flipping through pages I read headlines, describing the photos, laughing at stockinged feet perched delicately on outstretched hands.  They were very silly pictures, she agreed.

 From across the laundromat her father called out her name demanding she come back over there.  With a grin and a twinkle in her eye, she giggled “no,” got down from the chair and ran over to the magazine rack to take out a new magazine.

 Father came over to the stand and carried her, kicking and yelling, back to the table where momma was folding the newly dried clothes.  Smiling I went back to my book, with memories of a not very long ago time flooding my mind.  The little girl now twirling pirouettes in front of her dad, blonde curls bouncing to music only she could hear echoed my own little girl whose spontaneous back walkovers in similar situations elicited smiles from strangers. 

 Once upon a time, many years ago, I was a tomboy.  When I was small it was the 1960s, and my father insisted on buying me frilly dresses to make me more girly; I was no bigger than the laundromat girl when my dad wound up running down the street after an Easter hat I’d been wearing that had blown off in a chilly Ottawa wind.  That’s one of my earliest memories, a filament of nothing in a mountain of life.

 My sister asked me recently why I had gotten my tongue stuck on a church handrail – I told her there was a really pretty icicle just begging to be licked.  She remembered the priest running out with hot water to free me and all the blood when I yanked it off finally; she asked me why I would do such a thing to which I replied, “I was 3 and it seemed like a good idea at the time.  That’s all.”  Now 50, my sister bought me a comical magnetic decal of a guy with his tongue stuck on a pole.  It resides on my refrigerator as a reminder that even after all these years a tiny bit of that three year old girl lives on.

 Lost in my chapter, laundry still swirling in that great big dryer, the bouncy blonde returned with two magazines in hand.  “Read!”  She told me, more emphatic this time.  She held one magazine and I the other, and this one had much more interesting pictures.  There was a story about puzzles and magnificent pictures that came from them when they were done.  I didn’t read the article to her, instead, like I did with my daughter when she was small – I made up a story to go with the pictures.  “Aren’t they wonderful?”  I asked her.  She grinned.

 We were laughing about foxes on the prairies when momma yelled from her piles of laundry, demanding daughter come back.  Dad looked at me, half dubious, half nervous and insisted she come back.  Mom promised a treat and off she went as quickly as our great big black lab does at the sound of a Tim Horton’s doughnut bag.  I put down my magazine and went back to reading.

 Two or three paragraphs later, I was absorbed in Bruges, 1931 when I heard a disgruntled whining and mom saying, “There’s treats at home, we’re almost done.”  My mommy radar went up – this little girl must be their first.  It doesn’t take too many times offering something that isn’t there to learn it’s not a good idea to say something like that.  I tried never to do that, having had a dad who in happier moments would promise the moon and not remember he’d said that – like the violin I so wanted in the window of the music store in Billings Bridge – I promised myself I would never do it but sometimes I slipped up.  Life’s like that.  As an adult, you think: meh, okay.  As a kid, it’s the end of the world almost.  I have never forgotten that feeling.

 I dreaded McDonald’s commercials when my kids were small, especially with my son who tended take things literally when they advertised endlessly for happy meal toys.  Since he didn’t take no for an answer, at least not nicely, I tried to avoid them if there was something he especially liked.  Still I can’t help laughing when I think of the time when he was a toddler and my daughter, 5 years older and I were standing in line at a 401 Mickey D’s somewhere between Toronto and Ottawa.  At the time I was determined enough to try traveling from TO to OT with two small kids by myself, and the traffic was awful.  All of us needing a bathroom break and something to eat, we stopped. So did everyone else cursing the traffic.  While in the line up my tiny boy noticed a stand with a display of all the toys for the happy meals inside.  Excitedly he pointed them out to me – daughter and I told him there was no specific toy he could claim, it would have to be a surprise, and he was good with that.  What he wasn’t good with was the very long line up.

 Daughter was too young to send her off to a table with brother in tow, so I insisted they stay in line with me.  Slowly we inched up, daughter amusing son for some of it, me carrying him until he got too squirmy to hold in my arms.  Letting him go he wasn’t too impressed to still be three or four people from food.  As he did his toddler complaining I noticed a lady in the line beside me, all dolled up in a fur coat and jewels – no doubt going to a wedding or something, clearly unimpressed with my children.  She eyed me up and down, glaring at one and the other (daughter was laughing at my son’s silly antics) and I told my children we were almost there, settle down please.  She turned away.  Phew.

 The line inched closer when I heard people loudly whispering around me.  We were one person away from the goal when I glanced over at the befurred lady who for some reason was staring at me with an expression of horror.  I looked down to see son standing there in his glory, pants in one hand, underwear in the other, stark naked.  Okay, son, I said, time to get dressed, hurriedly putting his pants back on.  We were served quickly after that and the whole time I smiled, holding my laughter until we got back to the car.  Son, I will always thank you for doing what, in my faraway three year old mind, I so dearly wanted to do.

 The preschooler in the laundromat was crying, demanding her treat.  I glanced at my drying to see if it was still turning. It was. Mother told daughter to stop – loudly. Father looked at me with concern.  He needn’t.  Long ago I promised I would never, ever say anything to parents of a crying child in a public place.  I’ve had more than my fair share of people telling me to get my kids under control, even though there was a medical reason why for it, more than once.

 I’ll never forget my daughter being horrified at something I said when she was a teenager:  “Mommm!”  She exclaimed and I laughed.  My circle had turned, as it always does. 

 In 1994 my dad got cancer; make him laugh he said, and I did even though my heart was breaking.  Still, in the darkness, he brought me his light when he was with me in Toronto at the scary old hospital he’d been sent to for a major operation.  He was painfully thin. In his room the night before a stalwart nurse came in and demanded a sample. “What sample?” my dad replied and she explained he had to give her a urine sample.  She brusquely told him he needed to give her a bottle, he told her there was none, and she exclaimed, “Well I’ll get you one!”

 My dad, grinning, said, “Well, if you’re getting me bottle, there better be scotch in it!” 

 The nurse’s expression is one I’ll always treasure; when she slammed the door my dad and I broke out laughing in a way we were never able to experience again.  In that one moment, I saw the twinkle of the little boy inside.

 Long live the little child within.

———–

(c) Catherine M. Harris, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Republication in any form must be on the express permission of the owner, Catherine M. Harris.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Death by a thousand cuts is not a new phrase, or title; in fact it is an old form of Chinese torture though I understand Caligula was partial to this form of amusement as well. That being said, this is what I am feeling right now.

In the past couple of years I have suffered an unending stream of financial woes brought on by various utility companies. First was the electric reseller that locked me into double the current rate for five years and I could get out of it by paying a mere $800 or something like that. Now before you think I’m totally stupid, I had been fed a line that the amount I’d be paying would actually be less than the current monthly rate due to another line that would rebate a certain amount. You have 30 days to cancel contracts like that after signing, but when your bill comes two months after the last one, well, you’re screwed. As I was. It took two painful years of bills that at times were in the range of $1200 and fighting to get it canceled – to their credit they did lower the amount to around the average rate but with the provincial benefit that gets added on to such accounts, it was high for the one year I suffered with that before I was legally able to tell them to stick it.

I did tell them that. And life was good. For one month. The next month the time of use hydro meters came in and my bill went from my happy $400 (this was the summer bill) to $770. Why? Who the hell knows but we’re walking around in the dark a lot these days, and laundry and dishes don’t happen until after 9:00 p.m. The next bill was about 2/3 which is better, but still very high.

Now comes the gas bill. I paid off my air conditioner and thought, yay! Here’s $100 a month less I’m paying. Am I? Nope. Like one of thousands of equal billing customers I was slammed with a $500+ gas bill because “oops, we made an error and it seems we underestimated something so sorry, you have to pay.” So I did and they recalculated my monthly bill to an amount that is, strangely enough, the same as what I was paying before when I was purchasing the air conditioner. And gas rates have gone down. How can that be? Who the hell knows.

I live in a town that up until a couple of years ago had reasonable water rates, much better than the neighboring big city. Then eegads, the system was substandard and had to be replaced immediately which would cause an increase in water rates. Then they put in new meters as well. My water bills doubled. Then last summer I got a bill of over $500 to catch up for a year and half worth of estimated bills. Seems their accounting system wasn’t working so they just guessed. There’s a big kerfluffle over that one so I, like many, haven’t paid the exorbitant mysteriously appearing bill while the town decides what they can do with themselves about this. My last bill was double the estimated double bill from before because it seems I have a leak. After the huge summer bill I did a bunch of replacing of flappers and leaking taps etc., and it seems that out of the goodness of their hearts they will give a one time rebate for people who’ve done repairs. Provided they give all the receipts. Now I don’t often hang on to all my assorted Canadian Tire receipts, especially when it’s for stuff I know I can’t return so I don’t have them. What do I do now? I fill in the form and say what the eff, how do I prove this. In the meantime my water bill is now as high as my hydro bills (and isn’t the similarity in names interesting?) so how do I deal with this? Who the hell knows.

Last night I came home to a lovely little pamphlet, beautifully printed and compliments of the provincial government explaining why they are increasing rates and helpful hints on when to live your life. We, according them, now need to be vampire bats in order to do such horrible energy hogging things like washing dishes and laundry and cooking and heating the house and reading and using appliances. If I want to live a normal life, well, there’s always a rock and pail of water and candles and a wood-stove to suit my needs.

There’s been a big hoopla in the news the last few days about a cap being put on internet usage so I thought I better check on our unlimited account. Effective today my unlimited account has a 25GB cap. I checked last month’s usage. Uploads and downloads combined, for 4 people using it, came to 167GB. At $2/GB over, well, if we do the same this month we’re screwed. That’s getting into hydro bill territory. So I phoned. There’s a limit they can charge more, that being $60 so then that merely puts the internet into water bill territory. I can add an overage amount for $15 more a month but that won’t take effect until next month. So how do we deal with this month? Who the hell knows.

If there’s anything I do know, it’s this: all of these bills are not being caused by extreme shortage or the weather or anything other than somebody signing something into effect without any recourse by the people who not only need these things but have no choice but to swallow it. I want solar, but apparently the one plan that allows people in my area to purchase by paying for it from what’s generated doesn’t work for older houses with trees nearby.

The problem with swallowing it is that even if I turn off all the lights, spend my evenings and nights huddled in blankets and only take baths once a week, my salary simply isn’t going up enough to deal with this.

I’m at my wits’ ends and I’m not the only one. I watch with a mixture of curiosity, hope and fear at the situation in the middle east, most particularly Egypt. We’re seeing a nation of fed up people. We’re seeing people made even more angry by the controls on their communications. The government clamps down, but enterprising people are finding a way to get the word out, and equally resourceful people are hearing those words.

My country, the one of which I am so proud and thankful to live in, is making it nearly impossible to use what are considered by most rational and sane people as necessities and now, as of today, the extent of my words are being limited on the internet.

What am I going to do, now that my utilities are effectively more than half my take home pay?

Who the hell knows. But what I do know is that add enough of me together, let a few people die of the heat or cold in this very extreme weather country and you have the makings for some pretty serious business. Just ask Egypt.

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Happy Father’s Day (Fifteen Years After)

Dad and I, 1988

When I think of my dad it’s hard to pick any one image that would suit him.  He was many things in his persona, a chameleon in a way, mercurial in his moods and wit.

Anyone who knew him socially could tell you that he was a charmer with a very quick wit and a dark sense of humour; he would come out with these comments that on the surface may seem very sharp-edged and yet were just so incredibly funny that those listening would either be appalled or would be crying in laughter.  A lot of how you responded depended on just how quick you were in the uptake and how good a sense of humour you had.  A testament to his fine Irish roots I guess.

There seemed to be a fair bit of crying related to my dad.  Not just laughter, but frustration or anger.  This happens in any person’s life one has to agree; there just was a little more of it with him around.  It’s something you understood or you distanced yourself from him, it was all a person could do because that was simply who he was.

It’s taken me fifteen years to put pen to paper and write an essay about him.  I was going to put a commemoration in the newspaper on the fifteenth anniversary of his death but when the time came I just couldn’t.  It brought forth a lot of issues that are probably best left alone.  So I didn’t.  More importantly though was the fact that one small rectangle of expensive words in a newspaper isn’t nearly enough room to say what I’d like to say. Oh I could have put a soppy poem instead or a canned message that gets the point across but that would be a waste because if anything else, as a tribute to my dad it is probably the last thing he’d like to see in print anyway.  So there we have it.

My dad was raised in Lowertown, the Irish Catholic end of an Anglo-Irish capital that had the more well-to-do Protestants in one part and the work-a-day live by the moment Irish/French/Italian/maybe Native mostly Catholic other side.

A child of the Great Depression he was the second oldest of five children who lived with his mother, father, very Irish grandmother and her very cranky parrot.  His dad was a trolley driver for the OTC, now called OC Transpo.  My dad loved to regale us with stories of this time, some of the real, some of them questionably real, some of them just him playing a joke on us.  And that was fine by me because I loved his stories regardless.  He was a good story-teller with a lovely voice, a voice if I think about it I can still hear in my ear all these years later.

He was in the choir as a boy.  His dad would have him sing for his friends I remember him telling me, and later on he would tell me stories of singing in bars in faraway places like Washington or Rome.  He said he would walk down the street in Rome in the evening and sometimes the people in the street would join in with him, a band of strangers singing in the wee hours with the howling street cats and very probably people shouting out their windows to be quiet.  This could have been one of his fanciful stories but having met some of his friends who knew him back then in that time and place they say it’s true so I believe it.  Knowing him, yes it probably is.

My dad loved to sing, and he loved it when I sang with him.  There’s people who said he sang off-key but he didn’t with me so I guess it could be that when he had a bit too much to drink he’d lose it, I don’t know.  Singing was one of his passions, that much I do know, and I know that one of his greatest disappointments near the end of his life was when the throat cancer robbed him of his much of the strength of his voice.  He told me one time then that if he couldn’t sing, he didn’t want to live.  That made me so sad to hear and I told him he should practice talking – talk to the plants, talk to cat, read stuff out loud, do anything like that to help get it back, the radiation damaged things but maybe it could be fixed but he didn’t like to hear himself like this so he didn’t.

His favorite song was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.  It was his theme song and certainly a very appropriate one for such an individualistic person.  He was independent, maddeningly so often times, and I admired him for that.

To this day I wish I could have just one small pinch more of his individualism; I’d be a full-time writer and student if I did.  I got some of my talent from him, that much I do know.  He was a good story-teller and singer but he was also a very good artist.  When he drew his sketches they made me wish I could just sit down and sketch something like that.  So I practiced and eventually did learn to do that.  He painted a few paintings and I wish I knew where they were, gone to time I guess, though he never did have the nerve to try to sell any.

It saddened me that he didn’t have the courage to do that, and this loss to the world is to a very big degree what has made me go and try to sell short stories and books and paintings.  I’ve gone ahead regardless even though my book sales are pitiful and the paintings that have gone on show have never sold.  That’s alright, to me, I don’t care I just want the world to see and if they get something out of it great, if not, that’s fine too.  My dad lived on a more fragile edge emotionally than I do though so I can see how the disappointment of not doing well in something he loved and that meant so much to him would have been too much to bear.

My dad was incredibly bright and he had street-smarts learned from his days in Lowertown. He was a page-boy in Parliament when he was a teenager, and he left home at a young age to go work in Churchill Manitoba for a while.  He had many funny stories of walking the streets at night with lanterns ever vigilant of the polar bears, and had a girlfriend that inspired another story that I won’t repeat because I don’t know if it’s true or not.  He was definitely a charmer though and he blended in well with people of all ages and social strata, so anything is possible really when you look at his stories.  Was he a liar?  I think more often he embellished the truth, because as I have gotten to know some of his friends over the years there was an element of truth in pretty much every story he told.  And that’s good enough for me.

His ability to quickly pick up language and to fit in with wherever he was made him a good candidate for foreign service and that’s exactly what he did for many years.  He lived in Washington and Rome and Geneva.  He has so many great stories of those times that I couldn’t possibly retell them all here, though one story is undeniable and that is that he met my mom in Rome and they married and had two children.  My sister was born back at home, and I was born in Switzerland.

I wish that my parents had stayed in the foreign service because imagine things we would have experienced!  However, it was a time in their lives that family was getting older, important people were getting sick and dying and they decided it was better for everyone if they stopped those wandering ways and stayed in headquarters.  That was a good idea in some senses, however for my dad he lost that life that suited him so well, where he truly shined.

Things weren’t easy growing up.  My dad was restless and we moved apartments many times all over the city.  I went to something like eight different schools and for a very shy girl all this moving meant I didn’t have many friends.  Fortunately I did always manage to have at least one very close friend and I took a lot of my alone time to live in my imagination.  I wrote elaborate stories in my head and when I was old enough, I put them to paper, and sometimes I’d win awards.

My dad at the time was out a lot, and he loved to entertain when he was home so I got to hear stories from his worldly friends and I especially liked when my dad and his best friend would cook food from the countries they had been to.

My mom had a good job and that made up mostly for the lack of focus my dad had.  She would travel, bring one of us with her (which I loved), and the one left behind would be looked after by my dad, or a friend or a family member. When it was my dad he would often take us for a drive and we’d set off for somewhere and end up somewhere else.

I remember going on a trip that was supposed to be to the Mill of Kintail which he liked to visit and somehow we managed to wind up in New York state.  We couldn’t do that now certainly but I still wonder how we got across the border without ever stopping. If I can say anything about life with dad, it was never boring.  We lived a roller coaster life, one of highs and lows and we never knew from one day to the next what the moment would hold.

I look a lot like my dad, who looked a lot like people in his family.  My mom’s side came from the other side of the tracks, the upper crust side, and they were blonde Anglo-Irish as my aunt used to describe them.  He and I had that little bond from our skinny bodied, dark-haired and fair complexioned  countenances and that was fine by me.  I used to get people stopping me in the street when I was  a kid and they’d say, “Oh!  Are you Nelson’s daughter?”

I would be on a bus or just walking down the street when they’d do that.  It’s been many years now that I’ve been stopped in that way and a small part of me wishes just once that someone would do that again, but I’m thinking that like him, many of these people are gone from this world now.  Fortunately I work with people who worked with him and we do reminisce sometimes.  I like it when people do that.  He went far too young at aged 63, but on the other hand it does afford me this little bit of holding on to his living memory for that much longer.

As we grew older the roller coaster ride with my dad got much wilder and there were some very dark times too.  People turned away from us at some points, I had friends whose parents wouldn’t let them come over. I had friends whose parents let me stay there more often than perhaps I should for my sake I think, and as my teenage years began there were police and hospitals involved.  At the time it was shameful and scary – we learned he had something called manic depression and there were pills he took and then didn’t, and treatments that must have been terrifying for him.  In the early 70’s such a thing was hushed up; mental illness was much more a keep-it-in-the-closet thing than it is now.

Part of why I haven’t written an essay about him until now was this; I don’t want to diminish who he was because in the whole of it, he was a pretty great guy.  I loved him dearly and miss him terribly though there were days I have to say I hated him and the things he would do.  That was his illness that did those bad things though and it is in the bringing to light of that that I wanted to share this fact here.

Things devolved to the point that I ran away and was brought back; I was constantly in trouble, acting out, lost in a whirlwind of uncertainty.  Still, I survived and what’s more I think it’s made me a stronger person.  It took many years to work out all the emotions but I have and I have learned skills that have helped me in other ways, most notably for being able to deal with very difficult people and situations and to live a walking-on-eggshells kind of existence.  I am adaptable, and I think that it is my ability to find the good in whatever horror story that is presented to me that has made me the moderate success that I am today.  I could have mired myself in this and gone off the deep end but I haven’t.  My dad almost did, but being the survivor he was he didn’t.  In the end he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, took a couple of crappy jobs that led to him getting a decent job and his life settled down, albeit on his own.

Living on his own was the best thing for him really, and he admitted it.  As much as he loved people the responsibility sometimes was just too much and being on his own he was able to cope fairly well.  After the family broke up for good when I 15 my dad tried to keep in touch with me.  I was angry at everyone and really just wanted to be out on my own by that point, but one day it came to a head.

He’d been told I was seen smoking at bus stop during school hours and he laid down the law with me and told me I was going to be punished.  Now what that punishment was going to be I don’t know because he wasn’t living with us, but that was the tipping point for me.  I shouted back at him, “You’re not living with us, you haven’t acted like a father with me and you’re not going to start now!  You have a choice, you can be my friend or you can just forget it!”

My dad to his credit didn’t respond back in kind.  He said yes, I was right.  He wasn’t much of a father, and it probably wasn’t the time to start now.  He would love to be my friend, if I’d let him.  I said yes, and from that point on he never did try to tell me what to do.  Instead he listened, and I listened; we did things together, and when we had nobody, we hung out together.  We had mutual friends, and it was through him that I met my ex-husband.  In typical dad-style, he told me one time, “You have to meet this guy, he’s a scientist, you’ll like him and you’re the only one I know who can f*cking understand what he’s talking about.”  I still laugh at the memory of that because it’s true, science was and still is one of my abiding interests and is still something I’m studying in university.

My dad and I were best friends.  I can truly say that.  We’d cry on each others’ shoulders.  We’d drink together, laugh together, do absolutely nothing together, lean on each other and advise each other.  We stood up for one another, even when it was a hard thing to do.  I remember one night we were having a glass of wine after work in a local bar and some man beside me started hitting on me, bothering me.  Nothing I said could get rid of this fellow so my dad, who had been talking to someone else and overheard what was happening put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Hey, what are saying to my girlfriend?”  The guy just gave a sneer and said to me, “Right, this is your boyfriend?”  I said yes, and my dad said, “See? Now get lost.”  And he did.  You just have to love a quick thinking person like that.

We looked out for one another.  When his illness took a turn for the worst I’d be there at the hospital in the dead of night talking with psychiatrists, and when my life took down turns he’d be there for me in the depth of the evening listening to my latest tales of woe.  There were days when it seemed all we had were each other and that was fine for us.

My dad mellowed as he got older and as time went by his illness did calm down as well.  He was doing okay, and it was around this time that I married that man he’d introduced me to who was also a close friend of his, and we moved to Mississauga and had a child.  Things were pleasant and for what was probably the first time in my life, pretty much what could be called normal.

My dad had the chance to retire at 60 and he took it.  He looked forward to reading and to doing his painting, spending time with friends and no pressures.  There were pressures because he didn’t have quite as much money as he used to, but he was still doing fine when he asked me one day what to do because his family doctor was away; the prescription for antibiotics just wasn’t working after the third go around and his throat was bothering him.  I was going to be there on business in few days so I told him we’ll see what’s up when I got there and if it was really bad to go to the hospital.

He met me for dinner at a restaurant near his apartment and my hotel; he was having trouble swallowing and complained of a swollen gland.  I felt it – it wasn’t like any swollen gland I’d ever known; it was soft and didn’t move.  He looked thinner than usual and choked when he swallowed.  It scared me but I did my best to be calm and told him to please just have soup and liquids and he had to get to a doctor, this was something that wasn’t going to go away on its own.

My dad loved cooking and eating exotic food but more than that he loved his cigarettes and his scotch.  The phone call he gave me a few days later confirmed my worst fears.  His doctor took one look and said “this looks ominous” and immediately scheduled him for an examination by an oncologist. My dad had cancer.

There would rounds of radiation therapy – the thing that broke his voice – and surgery.  Throughout it all he was a fighter, determined not to give in to this demon that had killed his parents.  In the meantime I had a small daughter and was desperately trying to get an assignment or something that would bring me home.  People told me I was crazy to try, how was I going to manage that?  But try I did because my dad loved his apartment and Ottawa and refused to come live with me; sadly I wasn’t able to do that.

Looking back on it now it’s probably better I didn’t for I would have stayed and there would be no son who was born a year after my dad died, and my sister would never had mended their relationship.  You could say it was fated that I stay where I was however hard it was at the time.

He had a remission and for a while it looked like things were going to get better.  Cancer is very cruel though, because after remission it often comes back with a vengeance and so it was with him.  It had spread.  His only hope was a visit to a specialist in Toronto so he came to stay with me for a couple of weeks.

I took him to Sunnybrook Hospital, a place now closed, but at the time it was an old and decidedly scary place to be.  In the waiting room for one of his appointments I had my little daughter with me and one woman who was obviously very ill kept watching us, thoroughly enjoying my daughter’s happy chatter.  She said a few words to her and then an alarmed look crossed her face and she leaned over to me and asked, “You’re not here for her are you?” I told her no, we’re here for her grandfather, and as a total relief swept over here, she said, “Good.  You have a lovely daughter.”  I do.  My dad thought the world of his little granddaughter and I am so very glad he lived long enough to spend time with her.

My dad had to come back for an operation in a few weeks so he went home, despite my desperate pleas he stay.  In the meantime I was trying my best to be strong for him, as I had been all along.

In the beginning of this horrible journey he told me that he was getting fed up with the long faces and the somber talk he was getting.  He told me, please, just be myself, make him laugh.  He needed the laughter and some semblance of normalcy.  I was dying inside from the worry but I told him that certainly I’d do that, how was he ever to get better if people are all being sad all the time?

Well this got me in trouble with others; nobody understood what I was doing.  My husband thought I wasn’t showing enough concern; others wondered about my mental stability and suggested to my husband that I get mental help, how could I be joking at a time like this?  I could because I am my dad’s daughter, and because that was what he wanted me to do.  Were I in the same situation, you know what? I wouldn’t want the long faces either.

I stuck it out, regardless of the long discussions several people had with me on my seeming lack of understanding at the gravity of the situation.   Understood I did – very well – I had planned to be a doctor when I was a kid and I certainly looked at all the medical literature I could find on his cancer and I knew the prognosis was not very good at all.  So like my dad, as much as I hoped he would be one of the lucky ones, I didn’t want what was likely to be his last few months or weeks or days to be mired in sadness, I wanted it to be light. I told people there’d be time enough to cry after he’s gone, right now we want to laugh. I know my dad appreciated me for that and from my physical distance through most of this, it was the best that I could do.

The last time he visited he had an operation that was to remove additional tumours in his neck and one lung.  I brought him to Sunnybrook to be admitted and it was very hard for me to be calm, and I knew he was scared too.  By this time he weighted about 90 pounds, and the pre-admission exam confirmed that.  We had one particularly officious nurse who was snapping at  him to do this, do that, and more than once demanded he provide her with a sample.  He was getting fed up with her asking him for it and went into the washroom but there was no sample bottle and he told her that.  She snapped back at him, “Well I’ll get you a bottle then!” To which he replied, “If you’re bringing me a bottle, there better be scotch in it!”

She shot him a terrible glare and we both burst out laughing.  That was my dad, and though I’d been reluctant to leave him alone overnight I felt better knowing that when they kicked me out, he was going to be just fine, at least for that evening.

He had his operation and it went well.  The frankenstinean line of clips and stitches on his neck and shoulder told the true story when I saw him next.  Though the doctor was optimistic, I could see that this experience had taken the wind out of his sails.  He came home with me for a few days until he was well enough to travel, and against my pleadings, he did go home.

The last time we saw him he was so thin and small in his wheelchair, and as he waiting to be taken to board his plane he hugged me and told me he loved me.  He said to my husband a simple, “see you” and with the look in his eyes we knew he knew it might not be.

He had had enough, and he told his doctors no more.  He was put in palliative care at home, and that week he phoned and asked me to come see him.  I had told him if he needed me all he had to do is call and that weekend he wanted me there.  My husband said next weekend we could go, it would be Easter and foolishly I phoned my dad back and told him sorry, I couldn’t this weekend.  It was the last conversation we ever had.  That Saturday night he passed away, in his apartment, my sister on hand.

There’s very few things I regret in this life and this will always be one of them.  He knew he was dying and instead of just saying to my husband, “the heck with that I’m going,” I didn’t.  I know my dad would tell me not to worry about it but I do feel awful that this very important time I let him down.  I have learned from it though and I did learn to stand my ground better; I just wish I could erase that last moment.

There weren’t many “I wish I could haves” with my dad though and for that I am grateful.  My dad used to love to hear me sing and I would play the guitar and sing for him; I made recordings every year for a few years of my songs and other songs I liked that I would sing.  He always told me that he wished I would record things of me singing acappela, because my guitar playing is not the greatest and I promised him I would.  He especially liked when I sang Anne Murray’s song “I Needed You”, and it was hearing that song again after many years that led me to writing this essay.  I had planned to put an acapella song on my tape after I moved to Mississauga but work and being a mother of a young baby made it impossible to do another tape at all, there just wasn’t the time or the quiet to record it.

When he died this omission was something that bothered me, and when we were cleaning up his apartment mention was made of my tapes and why I even did them; his many owls were left on a counter to be taken by people or thrown out – the tapes and all of the owls I swooped up and brought home with me because only my husband and I in that time and place knew the significance of these things and I was so glad I did get there before all those crazy owls were thrown out.

The tapes inspired me to sing acapella for him one last time at his memorial service.  It wasn’t going to be for a few weeks so it gave me time to do something really well, and I decided that with his love of Italian (he could speak Italian fairly well and did on occasion) that I would sing Ave Maria in Italian.  I had a tape of the Neville Brothers singing it and I thought with the words and the Neville Brothers to practice with I could do it.

The problem was that I knew the tape was in the basement last I saw it, but in what box?  I tore everything apart and simply couldn’t find it.  I had taken everything out of every box, put them all back in and closed them; it just wasn’t there.  I sat on the stairs and cried.  I said to the silence, “Dad, if you’re out there and you want me to do this, please help me find this tape, I can’t do it without it.”

Several minutes later I lit up a cigarette, wiped my eyes and much to my amazement, there on top of the box in front of me was the tape.  I knew then what I know now:  in some way, shape or form, my dad is still with me.  I learned the song and a few days before the funeral taped me singing it to bring with me to play on a tape recorder in case I got so choked up that I couldn’t do it.  I didn’t need the tape; I sang probably better than I ever have in my life.  People walking by stopped and stood to listen.  I could feel his presence so strongly and I know he was happy.

Some months later I had a dream and he was there, standing in a doorway.  He told me that he was fine, he was happy and not to worry about him.  I was so happy, he seemed like his normal self, healthy and strong and yet when I looked at his hands he still had that Dupuytren’s Contracture where his last three digits had curled in towards his palms.  I said to him, “Dad, if you’re okay and you’re healthy, why don’t you fix your hands?”  He laughed and I laughed, and once again from whatever faraway plane he is on now, we got to laugh again.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, and many many times it is achingly hard; like today for instance. I can have good friends and family, but nothing can fill the void that was his spot except for memories.

As I was writing this my inner critic said “Eep, you can’t say that!”  Then I remembered the one thing that stood for my dad his entire life and that was that he did what he wanted to do regardless of what other people said, he just did it.  He liked my writing and I’m sure he’d understand that regardless of whatever toes I may step on by putting this out in the ether, it is my story.  Other people who knew him have their own stories and they are free to write it if they so choose, and that’s fine with me.

For whatever else, I am Nelson’s daughter.

_________________

If you’d like to hear the back up tape of Ave Maria I made, here it is:  http://www.aerendel.ca/cathisplace/Ave_Maria.mp3

Catherine M. Harris (c) June 20, 2010

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