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August 7th, 2017
Noon. TransCanada Highway, Nova Scotia.
“You come out at night… that’s when the energy comes…”
Though I haven’t listened to Sarah McLachlan for years, the lyrics to Building a Mystery roll off my tongue.
Driving on the highway heading to Pictou County for an impromptu overnight getaway, traffic is sparse. What a treat compared to Ontario where a venture on the 401 is akin to heading into battle, the journey a white-knuckle undertaking. Cruising this mostly empty road under a clear blue noon sky while wailing along to Sara is almost meditative.
“Cause you’re working… Ping!”
My eyes drift to the iPhone so rudely disrupting Sarah and me. On its screen is a text. I read.
Kar, Dad passed away…
21st Century death knell by text ping is a cold delivery system. But I feel no rancor toward its sender, my eldest brother.
Every tribe has its ways, and in my family we tend to bash forward in a headlong rush to get there sooner, the preferred path always the shortest distance between two points. Texts are perfect. Efficient and immediate.
I click Sarah off in favour of the one-note drone of car wheels on asphalt road to absorb. When I’d last seen my father more than a year ago, he was a ghostly shiver of himself, the end near. I’d said my goodbye, and since then, I’d been waiting.
Still. I’m stunned at the unexpected expected. Death is no stranger, but it had never before struck so close.
Though I know what I shouldn’t do while driving 118 kilometers an hour on the highway, I do it anyway. Left hand guiding the steering wheel, I snatch my phone with the right and thumb wrestle in the security digits and then poke the screen until the car fills with the ringing of virtual lifeline to Edmonton, Alberta where my big brother lives.
“Hi Kar,” he says.
After we ring off, I exit the highway and pull over at the shoulder. I could go home. I should go home, but I don’t know what the right thing to do is when I am so far away. The news too fresh to know how to fit it in anywhere, I decide to continue on, as planned, and that when I arrive at my friend Gail’s cottage, I won’t say a thing about my father.
I only have to make it through 24 hours.
3:30pm. Chance Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Sitting on the beach in matching Costco chairs, we pass around a bag of all dressed chips, the kind you only ever take to the seashore. My tongue recoils at the first sting of the vinegar, ketchup and barbeque flavours, and then I want more. I joke with Gail and her siblings, proclaiming August Prosseco month and mention I’d brought a bottle along to toast summer in Nova Scotia.
“Is that the ferry to PEI,” I ask of no one in particular, stabbing my finger in the air at a far away vessel.
Yeses and nods and then someone directs my gaze beyond Pictou Island and explains, “That’s PEI, right over there.”
Warding off the sun, I cradle my hand above my forehead. Beyond the boats bobbling in the water, I spy the skinniest strip of brown sandwiched between sea and sky, PEI.
As the day wears on, families accumulate, some heading our way to visit with the Gail and her clan. I retreat into myself as they chitchat, rolling the news of my father’s death around in my belly, trying to get used to it. When Gail asks if I want to take a stroll, I answer yes.
The ocean is shallower in the Northumberland Straits, said to be warmer than any other shoreline in the province. But on this Monday afternoon, the tide is low and the breeze cool, chilling the sea. I don’t want to feel the wet on my feet, so I steer clear of the surf, eyes low to help my feet dodge the stones pebbling the sand.
Gail and I talk of the casual and lighthearted, and at first it is fine. But as we get further down the beach and away from the crowds, death takes over. The news is too huge and staying mum any longer feels equal parts duplicitous and impossible.
“My father died this morning,” I say, spilling the words for the first time.
Back from the walk, towel wrapped around my goose-bumped torso, I sit seaside and stare at the water.
These two years living near the Atlantic, I’ve never known the ocean to appear as anything but itself. Maybe it’s the strait configuration and the distant shoreline of PEI giving the illusion of lake rather than sea this day. But it doesn’t really matter how I get to another watery place. Suddenly, I’m just there.
Lake Simcoe, Ontario.
We are on my father’s boat, the Calypso Lady. My brother Brent and I call it the Clampet Boat, in homage to Jed and the Beverly Hillbilly clan because there is never not something dire going wrong, never a lazy cruise that doesn’t begin or end amidst chaos and catastrophe.
My father fancies himself a fixer, and probably that’s why he chooses second, third or fourth-rate everythings, like this boat. Mechanical failings are his nirvana, futzing, puttering and jerry-rigging problems with the right nut or screw his manna. Naturally, his repairs never work out the way he plans or on the first go. All solutions are always one part away from anything he has on hand, prompting the inevitable trek to Canadian Tire.
How I despise being dragged along on those trips. The air in the store reeks of steel and oil and the dusty boot stench of the other fathers traipsing the aisles. I wait alongside my father, slowing my breaths in desperation for fresh outside air and the moment that will end the deathly boringness of watching my father sort through silver bits that all look exactly the same.
Standing at the bow with ever-present beer in hand, my father steers the Calypso Lady out of the slip. Tipping his head back, his dark hair falls away from his forehead as he drains the brown stubby, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with each glug. Yes, it’s early morning, but no matter. In my father’s world it’s five o’clock somewhere.
And then it comes, the loud and mostly expected CLUNK of the clattery bang interruption of the peace, ushering in the day’s expected unexpected.
“The manifold! It’s the God-damned manifold,” my father shrieks, following with a string of Jamaican swear words. “Rasclat. Bumbaclot. Jesus Damn Christ.”
I watch him carefully set down the his Labatt’s Blue stubby. And then he crosses his arms at hip level, grabs the bottom of his t-shirt, and wrenches it over his head as if he’s three and had only just figured out how to undress without a mother’s helping hand. Pants go down next, and he fights them off his ankles by feet, leaving only his underwear, a stark white slash across his sun-browned torso.
And then, he wrestles those down too.
Buck-naked, in a marina teeming with a Saturday’s worth of boats, each crammed with people and every eye riveted to our kerfuffle, my father scrambles to the side of the Calypso Lady and balances on its edge. In what seems slow-motion action to my mortified pubescent self, he steeples his arms above his head, arcs his body, and finally, mercifully, slips into the water, submerging his floppy goods in the lake.
August 12, 2017
I stare at the urn sitting on a table at the front of the room. Before taking a seat, I’d put my hands around and lifted the vessel, measuring the weight of him in my arms one last time. The metal was cool and smooth, and my father heavy, so very heavy.
The pastor is delivering the service, and though I should pay attention, I can’t help but drift away. Goddess knows I want to listen, and probably I would, if only his sermon weren’t built of well-worn platitudes. Call it thoughtless, selfish even, but I can’t abide the truth being stretched to fit a cliched loving father trope that never was.
When someone dies, combing the past is instinctive, unearthing forgotten memories a strange yet soothing tonic. The last five days spent wracking my brain for tender fatherly anecdotes had deteriorated into a woeful undertaking. I’d hardly a thimbleful. The fact is my father wasn’t much up for the dad game and listening to someone who wasn’t his child say otherwise only makes the truth snap back, twice as hard.
A man born a particular Jamaican archetype, my father was a lover of wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. Blessed with magnetic charm and a fetching smile, he’d lived large, crashing through the world in a spirited huckus-ruckus, his parental duties an annoying glitch residing in farthest fringes of his whirly gig life.
As Clerks, we’d forged make do paths, channeling humour and vague notions of ‘the right things to do’ as guidance, plowing through to adulthood, some of us floating away from rather than into each other. Really, it’s not all that unique a tale, and anyway, I got a hefty consolation prize in the rich fount of writing material such a father left in his wake.
There’s a giant photo of my father behind his urn. I get caught by its backdrop of blue sky and white sails. A smile is in his eyes, and though it had yet to reach his mouth when the picture was snapped, I can see it was on its way.
That day on the Calypso Lady, at some point my father surfaced and hauled himself back on the boat, already preoccupied as to how he might resolve the manifold issue, debating whether he had the right tools on board or if might need to convince someone to tow the boat back to the slip.
“Dad! Get some clothes on!” I’d probably shrieked in horror when he stared out at the lake instead of drying off and covering up immediately.
Maybe he tarried because he got lost in his thoughts, the way I do when I’m at the water, getting stuck upon that line where far away land intersected water and sky, perhaps wondering if switching out warm Caribbean Sea for cold Ontario Lake was trading up or trading down. And then he was back, go-to grin falling into place and fresh beer in hand.
“Come ‘nuh” I imagine him saying. “Nobody give a Rasclat about me.”
I suppose, we all move in the world the way we move in the world.
The pastor calls my sister’s daughter to the front. Hair pulled into a ponytail and face clean of makeup, my niece looks far younger than her 26 years, a lucky fallout of the Clerk DNA. She sets some papers on the podium and begins to sing, a capella.
“Spend all your life waiting, for that second chance…”
I’m stupefied. I didn’t know my niece could sing, let alone so clear and true, and the randomness of Angel, a second Sarah McLachlan song as sung by Clerk, seems less chance and more a reminder that we, the five survivors of this family and its failings, are now and will always be conjoined through my father.
Later, when the sermon is done, visiting over and the crustless sandwiches eaten, I scrutinize the photos pinned to boards, the big one of my father and a photo on his then-newish sailboat. My big bro comes up behind me and points my attention to the stern where my father’s bare behind is mooning the camera. And then, without knowing how it happens, a few of us gather around his urn and whisper our dad stories to each other.
August 24, 2017
Halifax, Nova Scotia
I’m wondering if my father’s passing ended everything or nothing. Sure, there are no second chances, no re-dos, no new stories. But if you believe, as I do, that the present can be re-informed in the act of resolving the past, then there might be something to be said for a re-interpretation of Anthony Keith Clerk, through the lens of man and not father.
Lately, I’ve been imagining being in Ontario with my siblings at Christmas and somehow finding a way past too many years apart. We might get through the awkwardness by sharing dad stories, debating which bits of the man lives on in each of us—his nose (sis), predilection for the otherworldly (big bro), appreciation for a fine form (middle bro), and all things tinker-based (little bro).
Such a thought is rather unexpected, but so too is realizing where I got my love for the sea, maybe even my smile.
Rest now dad, in peace.
Anthony Keith Clerk
b. September 20, 1933 in Kingston, Jamaica.
d. August 7, 2017 in Barrie, Ontario.