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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 to head into battle, every journey a white-knuckle undertaking. Cruising the empty road under clear blue noon sky while wailing out a song 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 Deighton.
Every tribe has its ways, and we Clerks 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, both 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 very 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 I poke the screen until the car fills with the ringing of a 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, anyway, I decide to continue on, as planned, and 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.
As the day wears on, families accumulate, some heading our way to visit with the Gail and the Lethbridge clan. I retreat into myself as they chitchat, rolling the news 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. On this Monday afternoon, though, with the tide low and the breeze cool, I don’t want to feel the water on my feet.
Dodging the stones pebbling the sand, Gail and I talk of the casual and lighthearted. But death is a distraction that makes it difficult to follow such conversation; the news is too huge. Staying mum any longer feels equal parts duplicitous and impossible.
“My father died this morning,” I say, spilling out 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 it’s lake rather than sea. 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 chaotic catastrophe.
My father fancies himself a fixer. Mechanical failings are his nirvana, futzing and puttering and jerry-rigging problems with the right nut or screw his manna. Probably, that’s why he chooses second, third or fourth-rate everythings, like this boat. Naturally, his fixings never work out the way he plans or on the first go. Solutions are always one part away from anything he has on hand, prompting the inevitable trek to Canadian Tire.
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 slow my breaths, desperate for the fresh outside air and the moment that will end the deathly boringness of my father sorting 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, his 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 CLUNK, the clattery bang interrupting the peace and 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.
He drops the stubby, 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 his mother’s helping hand. Pants go down next, and he fights them off his ankles by feet, his white underwear stark against sun-browned skin.
And then, he wrestles those down too.
Buck-naked, my father balances on the edge of the Calypso Lady, in a marina teeming with a Saturday’s worth of boats crammed with people, every eye riveted to our kerfuffle.
In what feels like slow-motion to my mortified pubescent self, my father slowly steeples his arms above his head, arcs his body, and finally, slips into the water, mercifully submerging his floppy goods in the lake.
August 12, 2017
The urn sits on a table at the front of the room. Before sitting down for the service, 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.
Goddess knows I want to be attentive to the pastor as he speaks, and probably I would if only his sermon wasn’t built of well-worn platitudes. Call it thoughtless, selfish even, but I can’t abide the truth being stretched to fit a loving father trope I never knew. 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.
When someone dies, combing through the past is instinctive, unearthing forgotten nuggets of cherished memories tonic. But the last five days spent wracking my brain for tender, fatherly anecdotes had deteriorated into a woeful undertaking. I’d hardly a thimbleful.
A man born a particular Jamaican archetype, my father was a lover of wine, women and song, though not necessarily in that order. With magnetic charm and a fetching smile, he lived large, crashing through the world in a spirited huckus-ruckus, his children existing on the farthest fringes of a whirly gig life.
Could he have been a different father? Probably not. So what of us, his five children?
Being Clerks, we’d forged make do paths, channeling humour and vague notions of ‘the right things to do’ as guidance, each of us 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 did get a rather decent 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, and 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 got lost in his thoughts that day, the way I do when I’m at the water. I wonder now if he wasn’t looking to that line where far away land intersected water and sky, trying to figure if switching out warm Caribbean Sea for cold Ontario Lake was trading up or trading down. And if he was thinking that, the thought would have been and gone in a breath, his go-to grin falling back into place when a fresh beer was in hand.
“Come ‘nuh” he’d have finally said. “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.
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. Deighton comes up behind me and points my attention to the stern and my father’s bare behind, mooning the camera. And then, without knowing how it happens, a few of us gather around his urn and whisper our goodbyes.
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 through 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, rather than father.
Lately, I’ve been imagining being in Ontario with my siblings at Christmas and somehow finding our way past too many years apart from each other. We might get through the awkwardness by sharing our dad stories, arguing about what bits of the man lives on in each of us—his nose (Charmain), predilection for the otherworldly (big bro), appreciation for a fine form (Brent), and all things tinker-based (Darren).
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.