8am, Saturday morning…
Saying good-bye is the single, solitary thought on my mind when I land at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
Being an early flight, we deplane in minutes, and I collect my bag.
Traversing the voluminous spaces of Terminal 3, he is on my mind as I head to the exit to wait for my brother Brent and sister-in-law Agnes. By 8:30, the three of us are on the 400, en route to Barrie to see this him, my father.
My father’s name is Tony. He is 84, lives in a long-term care facility and is pretty much bed-ridden due to MS. Diagnosed at age 50, though he was somewhat lucky in that the disease progressed slowly, my eldest brother Deighton had seen my father just before Christmas and let me know that the MS had ravaged and demolished my father’s mind. Long paranoid and confused, he’d now become mute.
Medical reports were conflicted and inconclusive. His addled state could be further onset of the disease or a suppression of his consciousness, due to the heavy drugs used to treat the MS.
Me, I didn’t think the why mattered. Pinning down a cause and effect relationship seemed more a detour around acceptance of change or endings, offering no solace in its knowing.
For the last while, Deighton had been relentless, and often when Skyping, he’d slip in a big-brother lecture before his good-bye.
“Kar, you should go see dad, before it’s too late. Make your peace.”
“I have,” I’d always say.
It has been four years since I have seen my father. Living in Halifax has given me a convenient geographical explanation for the lack of contact. But the years before my move, when he was a two-hour trip north, visits slowly reduced in frequency, eventually becoming years apart.
As the adage goes, “Honour thy father and honour thy mother.” Not seeing my father was contradictory to this and not often understood. With nothing so logical as distance to cite, I became quiet about my father, simply avoiding the conversation.
My father and I are not connected. We never were, and I always knew this. It was hard to accept, understand, and live with such a reality as I grew up, particularly when I saw what other fathers were like. So I latched onto other things to fill the void, not always good.
Later, when I had children, I came to believe the parental relationship and the responsibility to nurture, guide and keep it loving and healthy, no matter the age of the child, belongs with the parent. And when I figured that out, I decided to let go of the encumbrance of trying to connect with my father, not to make him change, but to give myself some relief from the constant longing for more. And in doing so, I found peace.
I am here now, in Barrie, neither as a guilty daughter nor in heed of Deighton’s warning, but because I am ready to say a good-bye to my father, whether or not he knows I am there, let alone who I am as his daughter.
Traffic on the highway flows smoothly, and Barrie comes quickly.
We’re soon at our first stop, our step-mother Ev’s retirement home. We find her room, and she ushers us inside. I notice she’s shrunk a bit since we’d last seen her, and she makes a crack about her diminished height before I get the chance. And then, wit unimpeded by age, she chucks out a few one-liners, taking turns zinging my brother and me, Clerk-style affection.
We plunk down on the sofa in her little sitting room, and I survey her apartment. Bingo. I spy the mother load, three photo albums. I get up, grab them, resettle on the couch, and entreat Ev to sit with us.
It’s memory lane time, and I’m unexpectedly desperate to return to the past. So is my brother, and we both hunker over the photos, hogging them between us in a fight for album control. We disagree on how long to look before turning each page, as if we’re 15 and 13, rather than 55 and 53.
Ev and Agnes indulge us, or maybe they just give up trying to get a word in edgewise or a glance at the photos. Clerks are formidable when they team up.
Memories leap out of the photos, flinging us into the past. The old marina… the Calypso lady… the nudist colony… my dad’s Toronto bachelor pad… me with 80’s hair and Brent with Flock of Seagulls do… weddings… babies… husband there… husband gone…
Brent and I laugh, arguing about the stories that surge forth. Our voices get louder as we challenge who remembers the story best, my brother trumping me one too many times with, “Kar, you stopped going to dad’s house on weekends, so how would you know?”
My brother is uncharacteristically bossy, lost in his memories, so I let myself float back, retreating into life when it was just me. Me naïve teenager. Me before. Me, happy and on the cusp of… everything.
If only there were a way to advise the self smiling back at me in those pictures that might have the power to alter the trajectory of the past, like in a sci-fi movie where a message is sent from the future to the past and changes everything.
But of course, that is impossible. We close the albums and I tuck them away. And then we pack up Ev and her walker and head over to see my dad.
At my father’s retirement home, we walk past a phalanx of wheelchairs gathered in a ‘C’ shape and parked in front of a TV.
“Thank you for being a friend… thank you for being a friend…” goes the Golden Girls theme on the screen. One of the seniors in the group is loudly and happily singing along in an off-beat accompaniment, replacing every other word with a tuneless hum.
“Tony is usually around here,” says Ev, as her eyes search amongst the residents sitting in the wheelchairs.
I start to scrutinize and notice a gray-haired man, his head slumped over on the right side of his chest. He’s one of the group parked in front of the TV. Brent notices him too.
“Is that dad?” one or maybe both of us asks Ev.
The giveaway is the full head of hair. It’s mostly gray but unmistakably that of my father, who has not lost a single strand for all his 84 years.
I walk over, bend down, and say “Dad, it’s Karalee.”
He says nothing, doesn’t move, acknowledge or look at me, though his eyes are open in a half-lidded kind of way.
I grip the chair handles, back him out and roll him out from the group and television. I bring my father along with us, and we settle by a huge picture window.
Ev had warned us that he might not recognize us or even speak. And there we sit, a stilted, awkward collection around his wheelchair.
My brother and I say hello again. Nothing.
“Tony, Karalee and Brent are here,” Ev says in my father’s ear. “You’re responsible for these children. They wouldn’t be here without you.”
He is inert, still, catatonic.
A thought runs through my mind that if he could, my father would find a way to check out of this gig. Clever, inventive and not much of a rule follower, if it were possible he would jerry-rig a decent exit, given the right materials and a little assistance from others. When he was the old Tony, he could charm anyone into anything. Why not a great escape?
Then again, what do I know? Maybe my father has some good dreaming going on. Maybe he is on repeat in a flying scenerio, zipping around in time and place unimpeded by day-to-day consciousness and interrupted only every now and again by the pretty nurse who gives him his cookie and drink in a sippy cup.
Who am I to say he would want to escape?
Since we cannot talk to my father, we talk to Ev.
“He was a good husband, the best husband,” she says, and I ask Ev to tell us the story of the night they met, at a Parents without Partners dance.
“Oh! Tony was talking to everyone that night. And I loved how he was able to converse about anything. After dinner, when the music started, he asked me to dance. And then he asked me again, and again and again.”
He drove her home that night, and she invited him inside. They sat on her couch, talking ‘til the wee morning hours, with a few kisses here and there, and fell in love.
Forty years later, she sits beside my father, stroking his face and arm.
Insomnia’s a bitch.
I am tucked into my temporary lodgings at Brent and Agnes’s house and sleep eludes me. I suppose, I am digesting.
On the ride home from Barrie, Agnes had asked Brent and I if we had any particularly fond memories of my father.
“No,” we had both said, almost in unison and without hesitation.
My father was affable, adventurous and devastatingly handsome. Women loved him, and he was the life of the party. Charming, energetic and fun-loving, he was also often impatient and stubborn, reckless at times, and upon certain occasions, quick to anger. In truth and like any other human, he was a mixed bag of characteristics and contradictions, some good and some not as good.
When I was young, I hardly saw him, but when I did, he alternately enthralled or frightened me. And when I was older, I never quite knew what to say to him. But of all the things he was or wasn’t, it is the one thing that he couldn’t be, do or or make room for in his life that haunts me, being a father.
In the darkness, I twist and turn, and then I sit up, fluff my pillow and punch it back down. If I cannot remember him as father, I will try instead, to remember him otherwise, as man.
Long, long ago…
I am a child, sitting in the back seat of our wood-paneled station wagon. Every window is rolled down and I see green everywhere. Little pieces of blue sky poke through, like someone stuck a hoe through the forest and let in the sky.
On the narrow gravel road, the trees and shrubs are so overgrown that in some spots their branches scrape the side of the car. When I stick my hand out of the window, I can easily open and close my fingers to grab a leaf or two as we drive along.
The first time we go to our cottage in the summer is always the best. My dad takes us early in the season, before they get the holes in the road fixed and before they trim back spring growth, when the spruces and pines and birches are still overwhelmed by shrubbery that greedily nips at their trunks.
On the gravel road, we soar up another hill, and then, my dad guns it when we crest the top, making butterflies in my belly.
Careening down, the car bottoms out in a divit at the base of the hill, and my dad hits the brakes. The force of the stop sends a tirade of gravel upward, and it rains back down on the car.
“God damn it,” yells my dad.
We skid a bit, the car jigging and jagging on the gravel, wheels flinging stones everywhere.
The car stops.
“Jesus Christ. The God damned road is washed out.”
Hanging my head out of the window, I watch my dad get out of the car and slam the door behind him. He investigates a small gully in the valley of the road, filled with water. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, and it must not be a big deal to him either because all he does is get back in the car, rev the engine and hit the gas, hard.
Galump goes the car, splashing water upwards. My hand trails out the window, and drops of water wet my open palm as the car trundles through the puddle.
My dad guns the car. On our way back up another hill, I wait for more butterflies.
This I know. My father is Tony.
He grew up in Jamaica, moved to Canada as a young man, and when given the choice, elected at all times to trek the path path less travelled because it was far more interesting.
He loved being outdoors, partying and pretty girls, although not necessarily in that order. As a man with a thirst for good times and adventure, his fun-loving spirit was accompanied by a blissfully ignorant disregard for rules and convention, often getting him into troubles, of the middle-class sort. As a natural outcome of his outlook, behaviours and escapades, we, his five children, were often thrust into moments of sheer, utter embarrassment or convulsive laughter.
Capable of deep affection, though my father was never one to initiate hugs, he would respond to and return them, threefold. Good news for children living amidst mayhem, chaos and sometimes, unintended neglect. Most of the time, my father forgot he was hauling five kids along through the atomic bomb blasts, or that later, his five children might be rained down upon by the rubble and spend a lifetime struggling to live with radioactive fallout.
And here we are now, my father near the end of his life.
Back at his retirement home, when it was time to leave, I wheeled my father back to his spot in front of the TV. I walked to the door to go, but then I turned back and went to him. I bent down and said into his ear, very clearly, that I loved him. And then I wrapped my arms round him, like he would do with me and probably for the last time, for a hug.
What I know is this. I know my father loved Ev very much, and I must believe, that in his own strange way, he loved his children.
He gave me my life and my stories, and back when I was little girl, whenever he took us to the cottage and gunned the gas, purely because he wanted to get to the cottage as quickly as possible, the off-shoot always gave me butterflies in my belly.
Good bye Tony. Good bye dad.