It’s a playground bully, unsatisfied unless fists are drawn and blood flows. The drunken uncle whose continuous taunts to pull his finger are more about his self-satisfied laughter than ours. It’s the immature dink in the office who is incomplete until he gets the final word, no matter how pernicious or insecure.
Trust me, it’s much more subtle than that. It’s the trickster fox, practiced at setting up a ruse to capture his prey. It’s the wild west gambler, poker faced, eyeing his opponents, cards held close, planning his next move. It’s the chameleon – deathly still, changing, adaptable, morphing effortlessly into its surroundings in self-preservation.
Writing about my first sober-wagon experiencebrought unassailable freedom. Alongside it came personal power, relief, even fluffy-headed joy. The first few months were characterized by a pink cloud of giddiness.
I told my story to whomever would listen. Upon closer inspection, cornering them at the entrance to the gas station toilets probably was inadvisable. It’s hard to tell a good story when someone keeps hopping around with forced grin, wide-eyed in panic.
I rode that cloud for awhile, yippee ki-yaying in sober delight over the bronc now under my sway. Skies were bluer, food tasted better, sitting at a desk seemed less toilsome, assholes were less ass-holier. The world in general was a happier place and I was a part of it.
I returned to my passion for running, and by ‘returned’ I mean completely embedded myself in it. Three months later and almost sixty pounds lighter and some didn’t even recognize me. I ran almost every day, rain or shine.
Mostly rain. It was Oregon after all.
I was out and proud (no, not that one) and wanted the world to know.
But (come on, you knew this was coming), most recently, a closet door, busting at the seams, alcohol demons whining lustily behind it, finally split wide open. Out they spilled, like eavesdroppers pressed against the honeymooners’ door. They piled out with impunity, bent on destruction.
Thankfully, it was short-lived.
Demons, once out of their cells, tend to lose their bluster. Their muscles aren’t as impressive in daylight. They’re just naughty little boys good at hoodwinking, lying, and swindling us into places we’d rather not go. They’re mythic monsters only when we turn to give eye contact.
Fair enough. But, why were they still there in the first place? Hadn’t they been scolded and sent packing years ago? Here’s my discovery.
I fell prey to what is sometimes called Post Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), or simply “dry drunk syndrome.” The problem has been recognized. The booze is gone. New habits are forming. But, at the inside of this Oreo isn’t yummy cream filling. It’s the allure of the addict quick-fix to all of life’s problems. When left unchecked, it will soon prove itself more powerful than ever.
“This term [dry drunk] is obviously an oxymoron as it implies that a person is drunk without ingesting alcohol.
Dry Drunk Syndrome is a condition where an alcoholic retains mental and behavioral traits associated with drunkenness even when he or she is not drinking alcohol.
Surely, one would think that the “dry” state is a critical objective for alcoholism treatment regimen. Unfortunately, the presence of this syndrome is actually an indication that an individual is in danger of alcohol relapse. He or she remains emotionally disturbed, mentally unstable and spiritually skewed despite quitting alcohol.
Thus, as an alcoholic, nothing significant has been achieved under a dry drunk condition aside from stopping the habit of drinking alcohol. In fact, the manifestation of typical signs of dry drunk syndrome is a red flag that should concern a recovering alcoholic.”
It appears that I may not have been as sober as I’d imagined. Not drinking? Sure. But, sober in the textbook sense? Perhaps not.
As any A.A. veteran will tell you, unless you’re actively pursuing a program of sobriety, you will not outpace the disease. It is still pursuing you. Relentlessly. You may not be drinking, but you can be damn sure it is still doing you, quietly biding its time until walls go down, the dam bursts, and you drown in a pressure-mounted swell of issues left untended.
How did I get here? What happened to almost fourteen years of sobriety? What was my brain telling the rest of me? Put another way, what the hell was I thinking?
In a nutshell, I stopped telling my story. And, when we stop telling our stories, we simply stop – growing, learning, being.
Our stories are equally descriptive and prescriptive of us. They help put shape to the varied experiences with which we struggle to find meaning. In a way, they are the foundation to a high-rise. They illustrate to the world what tickles our fancies, pokes our ribs, and gets our goats.
They can be our fairytales, falsities, nightmares, whitewashed witticisms, personae donned or doffed, big jokes, still bigger lies, the sob-stories – they all count. They are all bits and bobs of our total picture.
But, told often and well, our stories are prescriptive, too. They form buttresses, act as protective sheaths, and even offer advice. Who am I? Who am I not? What are my fears and how do I overcome them? How far will I go but no further? Who should I ignore (kidding…kinda)? To tell one’s story is to be reminded of one’s personhood, of what matters.
The twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are revealing on many levels. The hardest steps are the early ones – admit our powerlessness over alcohol and believe that something/one greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.Many never make it. I did make it, but then, over time, forgot that I’d made it, and had to make it there all over again.
Recent events reveal that any previous sense of empowerment wasn’t ever going to be enough. In fact, anything at all other than constant awareness of the disease in humble surrender to a Higher Power, is an accident waiting to happen (demons in the closet, remember?).
So then, how exactly does a dry drunk dry out? The same way every other alcoholic does: Don’t drink.
But, just as central to this via negativa is the positive power of story-telling, even when that story doesn’t glimmer around the edges. My story, like any other, has a “once upon a time.” But, if I would see a “happily ever after” I must keep telling this tale to whomever will listen.
Recently, I was reintroduced to the wonder that is Alberta.
I spent some quality time with Mom and friends, albeit under rather sad circumstances, camped atop Alberta’s green waistline near Camrose. Life is slower here, although bearing the weight of a daily regimen of tasks that would shame a comfy city dweller like myself. Folks are simple, genuine; their politics bespeak as much. I need these types in my life to remind me of life before the city, before we traded green for grey, heart for hurry.
Calgary, that sprawling spray of suburbanism, welcomed me back into her bosom. It is the visual race-for-more set deceivingly in the beauty of rolling foothills climbing their way upward into the Rocky Mountains to the west. She eyed me closely however, untrusting of the broader perspective, gleaned from years of life elsewhere.
The bare shoulder that is Cochrane, held aloft against the Rocky Mountains to the west, provided some jogging (more slogging really) at nearly a mile above sea-level. It was backdrop to a spacious visit with my sister and her husband.
Okotoks. A once-proud cowboy town among the lemon-lime valleys south of Calgary, now Boho-wannabe with more yoga pants and boutiques than boots and hankies. She played host to the auspicious (suspicious?) occasion of my wife’s 35th High School Reunion. As much as an event aimed at aging 50-somethings could be described as ‘epic,’ I’m willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.
The unattainable majesty of Lake Louise, made impenetrable by the ant colony of one-eyed, phone-clicking tourists. Paradise through a view screen.
I’m surprised, even shocked, at my close and immediate affinity with the place. There is much more of me here than I ever suspected. My guts tighten a little whenever my senses get re-assaulted with the pungency of rape seed and peas. My eyes widen at the foothills, frolicking, green with spruce, poplar, birch and aspen, or the salutary pomposity of the Rocky Mountains. My ears still cringe a little at the old crone call of the magpie. My heart swells with memories clamouring for space.
There is a regal order, a persistent danger to this place, in equal measure to its complete lack of pretention. It sits in your lap, comfortable and familiar, like an old farm dog. But, treat her with due respect or she’ll reveal her strength.
It’s easy to forget the relative wealth of the place. Alberta practically drowns in money, choking at times on oil vomited from her broad, black belly. It has made her insanely rich and her people a little myopic with respect to the rest of the world. The furious pace of new construction and the larger-than-life cars, hardly suggests the unforgivable economic downturn so bewailed by her inhabitants. But, lest I come across as ungrateful, that same controversial landscape made for an upbringing much of the world would crave. I am as thankful as I am uncomfortable. It’s an uneasy tension I live with to this day.
The folks here are as big-hearted as the landscape – expansive and verdant – looking for something to grow. But decades of oil and gas revenues have created a monster that lives below, quietly snoring, biding her time. Have the best steak and potatoes of your life one day – cigars, laughter, and foot-stomping music in tow – and all is well. Dance to the beat of the oil drum and they’ll give you their shirts and a layer of skin to boot (cowboy style, that is). But, reveal yourself, even casually, as someone uncomfortable with fossil-fuel damage, global warming, and the need for alternatives and you throw in your lot with the cattle headed to be your own supper. They are a strong and proud folk, duly protective of their fossil-fed way of life.
So, conversations stay safest where family starts. They wander in and out of the calf-pens holding the warm and grazing words of easy strangers who feel like friends. These are those whose unadorned view of the world around them makes them quick to laugh, quicker still to pray for rain. Their hopes are found tucked in saddle bags and blue jean pockets or Esso attachés, and slumbering in the subterranean black. Their hands, farmer’s tans, truck culture, and souls are of a piece; indistinguishable parts of a whole.
It’s me through a macro-lens. It may not meld perfectly with the bio-me, but it is the stuff of who I am nonetheless. Born and raised an Alberta boy, now with complicated Celtic-progressive overlay, I can’t deny it any more than run from it. Who I am today, even this very moment, is still the product of wheat and soil, mountains and laughter, horses and magpies, oil and prairie tornadoes.
Today, we laid a good man to rest. And we did it just how papa Sam would have wanted – with belts ‘n boots, hats ‘n hoots, songs ‘n roots. Today, we celebrated him even as he celebrated us.
Friends (to Sam that was pretty much everyone), family (to whom he gave himself unreservedly), and lovers of music (Sam was a magnet to these types) all gathered in the heat and humidity of an Alberta-in-July afternoon to remember. Not just remember, but tell stories, maybe a joke or two, and sing songs – often at the same time.
I was honoured to act as host to an event rightly called “A Celebration of Life.” There are those who would be aghast at the idea of such revelry at an event generally reserved for more sombre fare. “Funerals are for closure,” they tell us. Unless we can see the cross and communion table, and sing In the Garden, it’s just not right.
“They’re welcome to it,” says Sam. “I prefer to have all my friends a-cross from the picnic table, communing together in God’s garden. For me, it’s just right.”
I acted as host, as I often do at these things. Beaming like high-beam headlights, Mom introduced us all as her family, as Moms do. This was to be a day for all of us, anyone even remotely related to Sam. It was an open door party. There were few expectations. Perhaps a love for tapping toes, sharing a humid afternoon with horseflies, and a belt with enough holes to allow for a belly full of pulled pork and potato salad.
Small price to pay for a heavenly hootenanny. And this affair was that, a gathering of fellow sojourners with happy hearts and hungry guts. This was Sam’s world, where the two always go together. And this celebration was designed to satisfy both.
To know this man was to celebrate in general. If Sam was in the vicinity, a gathering would soon follow. He attracted musicians like Alberta mosquitoes. Just more welcoming. It was best if you knew a song or two. Play an instrument? Not to worry, you were always welcome. If so, that much better.
All those gathered here in this place did both. Very well. And, their voices held the weight of grief borne of cheer-filled music and laughter. The Willows would be our home for the day – nestled in a little aspen grove carved out of the broad, Alberta landscape.
Sam Young. Papa Sam. He was a man of surprising talent, energy, industry, kindness, and complexity. Mom might have called it chaos. She’s gonna miss the bugger, as are we all.
This little man of a big heart kept her in the happies for over twenty years. In fact, I have observed a pre and post-Sam woman. The former was much more anxious, uncertain, ambivalent. The latter, engaged, hopeful, courageous, a risk-taker; a woman fully alive.
Sam never lived life from the periphery. The edges were much too flimsy, too safely suburban to support his wild west spirit.
No, Sam was a deep-sea diver, plunging off the bow head first, wrestling sharks and singing them songs all the way down. It’s likely why he never drowned. Life was his rodeo. Saddle up, cinch up, shut up, and giddy up. He sang songs to soothe the ornery beast that tossed him to and fro.
But, mostly, for Sam, life was a campfire – a gathering around a welcome heat and light for friend and stranger alike. He’d kickstart countless singalongs and jam sessions, enough to cheer us all and then some.
A single hour with Sam at the ranch promised at least two things:evidence of the trade in every corner of the house. It would be easy to step on musical instruments, strewn about from stem to stern. He was always boasting some new guitar, mandolin, banjo, or other.
But, the second thing one encountered at papa Sam’s was jovial conversation. Lots of it.
Lots and lots of it.
Get Sam going on a topic and he was a wind-up doll. Best to just let him run with it. Otherwise, you would only encourage another pull of the string and off he’d go again. Short visits were rare.
But they were good. Very good. At least a song or two found its way into every one of those visits. Or, perhaps some new insights on resetting a fiddle bridge, restringing a mandolin, or shimming a bone saddle. He had taught himself the luthier’s trade. I wish we’d spent more riding that horse together.
I generally consider myself to be reasonably conversant in the physics of stringed instruments. That is until any visit with Sam. Then, I discovered just how little I actually knew. Much of what I called know-how was often just a lot of pretentious bullshit.
But, regardless of poorly veiled lack of insight into the topic, the time spent was always worth the time spent. I value every moment and, whenever it is I go to join him, we can pick up where we left off. Besides, Jesus will need a break from Sam talking his ear off.
“Good, you’re finally here…can you take over for awhile?”
“Lord, isn’t patience a virtue?”
“Of course. But, the Baptists ran out of potato salad, the Pentecostals are squabbling over something, and I need to break up the Presbyterians – they’re starting another sub-committee.”
“No worries. I got this. We’ve got more songs to write anyway.”
“Thanks. While I’m gone, I’ll ask Pop where my fiddle is.”
“Perfect. When you find it, meet us back here, we’ll be singing ‘Back to the Mountain’ with Peter, Gabe and the boys at the campfire.”
“Just don’t encourage Barnabas. He thinks he’s being funny when he sings ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Oh, by the way, Peter’s on probation. He’s been hitting on the female angels.”
“He won’t be a problem. I’ll just tell papa Sam that he loves stringed instruments. That’ll keep ‘im busy for awhile. But, hey, we’ve got nothin’ but time on our hands…”
My gut tells me he’s already broken up a squabble and tricked the Presbyterians into singing “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.” If nothing else, with Sam pluckin’ and singin’, heaven won’t be stuffy, and eternity will seem like half an hour.
Recently, I spent words lamenting my egregious fall from grace. It was egregious in the sense that I had all the tools at my disposal for such a thing not to happen. And it still did. Fall because I ended up face first in my own stink. Grace, not in the heavenly sense, but in the way a person views his or her personhood held up to the light.
In this instance, it didn’t look as shiny anymore. In fact, the worst part of any alcoholic’s misery is the glowing reality that self-respect has left the building. And when one lose’s self-respect they lose the ability to adequately respect others as well.
And so the question remains, what now? What steps lie ahead for this newly sober, recovering alcoholic?
The first part of that is the convergence of two things: my vacation and, more importantly, some of that vacation spent at my Mom’s. I’m here in part helping plan papa Sam, her husband’s, celebration of life service. Hence, I begin with words penned among the whispery poplar and birch that stand guard around their mini-ranch in central Alberta.
* * *
It would be easy to lose all track of time up here. Imagine a place so quiet that the ticking of the wall clock becomes almost intrusive. I can hear the blood race through my veins. Even the creaks of my aging bones become deafening in a place almost averse to sounds other than the rustling trees and the occasional lowing of happy cattle.
Such is life on a central Alberta ranch, or so it seems to a late middle-aged, suburban white guy on vacation. A guy could get used to this pace. Well, so says the man unaccustomed to the accompanying rigours and harshness of Canadian prairie life.
One’s vacation experience of a place is usually quite different from those doing the heavy lifting to help produce that experience. So, I suppose I should, more rightly, consider myself a prairie homestead consumer. A few days spent at Golden Spur Ranchetta being waited on hand and foot by my own mother. Home cooking, and the full package, magazine-ready, prairie experience. To be fair, I washed the dishes last night. That counts for something, right?
It would be perfection indeed if it wasn’t also the context in which I’m helping Mom lay her best friend to rest. It tends to bring some shadow to an otherwise sun-bright living room where I pen these words.
This is Mom’s place. It has her touch at every turn. Like stepping back in time, there are, everywhere, reminders of my own childhood. But this is also Sam’s place. A house that boasts numerous guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, amps, gear, and tools of the luthier’s trade. He loved his old-time cowboy music and did the tradition proud with his devotion both to the music and the lifestyle it portrays.
Most of all, this is their place. Sam and Doris. Mom and “Papa Sam.” Here is a life woven lovingly together with strands of two in a single tapestry. It boasts the simplicity and industry expected of prairie home companions. A picture, painted not by Thomas Kincaid’s dishonesty or Norman Rockwell’s wishful thinking, but by two hardy souls better suited to the task.
Golden Spur is a paint by number where God does the math. Two souls plus one hope plus one God’s watchful presence, now one less.
One less. But somehow, none the less for it. Sam’s spirit lives on here. In Mom. In the legacy of his hard work.
The quiet hours spent here among the poplar and birch give me ample room to stretch my rumpled, but healing, soul. I am faced head on with the unwelcome task of returning to normal life with a lot of relational work to do.
Addicts of any kind are profoundly self-serving. We need to be in order to keep and nurture our dirty little secret. Maintaining addiction comes at a high price. Our lust for euphoria takes prisoners. There is a desperation afoot that causes us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. We hurt those closest to us in ways we can’t imagine, and usually can’t even remember.
Certainly for me, I become a man I do not know. Someone I do not like. I’m forced to live in a dark corner of my head that lacks judgement, wisdom, compassion, or boundaries. I latch onto whomever happens to be in the way and, like a rottweiler on a kitten, drag them under the water with me. It forces everyone into codependency, slaves with me to a burden not theirs to bear.
Then, morning after regret. The addict looks back over a smouldering wreckage with their name on it. Reputations, relationships, respect, sometimes even families, all lie in ruins – taken captive by someone blissfully unaware of the carnage that ensues through his inebriated wizardry.
Now, before this begins to sound like little more than addiction to self-pity, let me put on the brakes and reveal what is emerging in me. And, this time spent at Mom’s provides perfect respite for doing just that. In this gift of silence I have seen that the truest me, despite having lost its lustre, remains unblemished. Kicked around and battered a little, but largely intact.
For reasons known only to my Higher Power I have been continually surrounded by those who love me. They’ve stayed, even through my worst days. Few truths are more life-changing than to awake from addiction and see, through the smoke and chaos, the faces most precious, best known, eyes cast down and hurt, but still present.
Their faithfulness lends new life to one whose heavy lifting now is a daily return to sobriety with tools ready to rebuild wherever possible. Earning trust and respect, even if from scratch. So be it.
Mom, I wish I could be here under circumstances different than these. Nevertheless, I take these days, each and every one, as pure gift. In them I reconsider a life. My life. My one and only life. This great, albeit fragile, life in which I live, move, and have my being.
So, what now?
I lift up my head, newly clear and seeing far, and say in a loud voice: “Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic.” Better still, I’m a man beloved and embraced.
Perhaps the most unwelcome passage through which all ships must pass is that of death. To be the impotent observer at the bedside of someone in the throes of death can seem the greatest of all insults. One must fight the battle between a desire to see wellness return with the growing awareness that such a return might not be either possible or in the person’s best interests. It is as poignant as it is horrifying.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do.” Lonelier words were never spoken.
I too have faced this burden of human experience with grandparents and my own father who died from complications to his cancer treatment. Most recently, on Saturday morning, April 22nd at 3:00am, my step-father drifted into eternity. The lasso keeping him tethered to the dusty ground released him into much bigger pasture. One without fences.
Papa Sam was a cowboy, Métis (may-tee)* to be exact. Born Samuel Maurice Young in the austere, rambling flatlands around Birch Hills, Saskatchewan he was quick to adapt to the rough and tumble ways of the Canadian prairies. The youngest of three boys with a younger sister, they were the bluegrass version of the von Trapps. His brother Stan on fiddle, another brother, Gordon, on banjo, together with Sam on guitar would join their Dad or uncle, both fiddle players, to fill the house on prairie nights with the music of the farm.
A young farm hand, Sam, at the green age of 10, played his first dance with his Dad, promptly returning his earnings of a quarter to the Red Cross. A similar largesse would follow him for his next 72+ years.
Sam was inseparable from the cowboy fare he loved. A cowboy action shooter for many years, he collected guns and formed an indissoluble connection to the frontier life of the wild West. Old-time country dance music, played the old-time way on old-time instruments characterized the spirit of this small, big-hearted man. Numerous dance bands, including his own, The Calgary Playboys (fitting, given his rep as a ladies’ man), made the rounds in the Calgary scene for over 30 years. It would provide the context in which he would first meet Doris, his beloved wife – my mother.
Her life had not exactly been characterized by rose petals and wine. She lost her husband, my father, in September of 1985 when he was merely 55 years old; her senior of 13 years.
Mom was a widow at 42.
She played the role of dutiful wife and mother well, shuttling us hither, thither, and yon with tireless dedication and far too little gratitude. She shouldered the biting loneliness of a stolid, unflinchingly reserved man in my dad while acting as umpire to our numerous family squabbles, many of which revolved around my own self-centered peccadillos.
Dad’s passing kicked her feet out from under her. Even for one as strong and independent as she, the shock of being alone in the world was overwhelming. Nights full of angry tears eventually settled into steely resolution to reintegrate and reenergize by doing what she loved best, serving.
Much of the time, that meant some part to play in the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization to which our entire family had been attached for many years. One such role was in working as president of the senior’s dances at Ogden Legion in southeast Calgary. She helped plan the weekly dances and hired the bands for these events. Sam’s band was one of those.
It was 1997.
A major surgery pulled Mom out of commission for a while. Sam was quick to notice her absence and asked about her regularly. He’d call her just to talk and to check on her well-being. Upon her return to the Legion, she was the lucky recipient of a big hug and rather public kiss. His charm, cowboy swagger, and crooning country voice ultimately proved too much to resist and Mom and Sam moved in together.
For the next 3 years, they lived happily side by side in my childhood home in Calgary. But the draw to the country proved too urgent to ignore. In October 2000, they sold the house and moved into their idyllic new digs near the hamlet of Kelsey, Alberta. Golden Spur Ranchetta, as they named it, became their new home and, together, they made the dream of Canadian frontier life their reality.
Long days spent clearing land, pulling out wayward trees, retooling outbuildings, dealing with renters in an adjoining house, nurturing horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, was their daily lot. It fit them like a hand in a glove. I had never seen my mother so alive, so full of vigorous determination, so…happy.
In October 2005, they were returning from Calgary, along Highway 21. Sam turned to her, saying rather baldly, “I think we should. I think it’s time.” In as matter of fact and unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a Canadian prairie cowboy, he had just asked my mother to marry him. This they did in a small ceremony held in Forestburg, Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2005. For the first time since she had become a Rife over 40 years earlier, my mother had a different name.
Together, Mom and Sam weathered well the uncertainties of ranch life in an often-harsh central Alberta landscape. They made many new friends, most of them musicians of one kind or another. Like a loose belt, their lives spread out amid country music jams, reenactment wild West gun shootouts, mosquito-laden summers, and fireside nights under the vast Alberta stars. I watched my mom transform from an anxiety-laden, late-middle-age housewife into a buoyant, self-confident woman. It was delightfully disconcerting.
Ten years later, in December 2015, I was blessed to offer a renewal of vows service at Yakima Covenant Church. I had never done such a thing before and was proud that this event, of all things, was my first.
In May of last year, a combination of doctor’s visits, followed by unwelcome phone calls sharing even less welcome news became their lot. The ‘C’ word had taken root as infidel in Sam’s lungs. It would ultimately have the last word.
But the final notes were always his to sing. He lives on in memory and song. His CD, Back to the Mountain, released when he was 80, reminds us that music never grows old. It pulls us along our dusty trails on wooden wheels of hope. It is a small part of a big legacy, served up fresh, and ever new.
Now, Papa Sam sings harmony with his ancestors, leaning up against heaven’s gate – rough-sawn, split pine, and barbed wire in his case – playing his favourite guitar. The Great Spirit (Jesus to me) sits nearby in plaid shirt, jeans and a ball cap, playing spoons and a washboard. A gentle country waltz fills the perfect air, and bristles with the high-stepping joy of heaven’s jamboree.
Farewell, cowboy. Farewell.
*Métis originally referred to Francophone and Cree-speaking descendants of the French-Catholic Red River Métis in Manitoba. They are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada, descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginal people with French-Canadians, Scots, and English settlers.
He died of lymphoma on September 15th, 1985 at 10:22 pm. I was 21 years old. At that moment, a man I never really knew, passed into the aether, and was crushed tight to God’s bosom. Found by God and lost by me, he is to this day, an enigma and my regret. He was my father.
We spoke precious little while he was alive. A sense of quiet desperation peppered his disposition. A staunchly stoic individual, his upbringing in the wild, velvet foothills of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan burnished a certain leathery sheath to his already withered spirit.
I saw my father cry only three times. Once, during a conflict with my younger brother, whose belligerent cry of “yea, well, you’re not my real Dad, so I don’t have to listen to you,” saw him descend into bitter weeping (all three of us are adopted). On another occasion, my Mom was reacting to my new but immature faith, a faith terribly demeaning to anyone outside the tiny club I then called Christianity. My own inability to navigate the complexities of this new life of faith had thrown a monkey wrench into the heart of our family. My Mom was hurt and let me know about it. Dad tearfully held my hand, recognizing in me his own lostness in the world and responding as he generally did, silently, but deeply.
I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so he didn’t have to be alone when he got his biopsy results. The very fact that the doctor couldn’t tell him over the phone had already primed the pump as to what we could expect. I sat in the waiting room while he consulted with the doctor. What seemed like days passed until he finally emerged. Tears drew lines down his ashen face. It was the third, and would be the final time, I ever saw him cry. His words haunt me to this day, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”
The denial in his words bespoke a terror I had hitherto not seen on his usually emotionless face. He was genuinely afraid and communicated as much in the only way he knew: cautious deflection. Perhaps if he treated it like a bad cold it might just disappear like a bout of coughing or a snotty nose. And, as we would discover later, he had most likely lived with the growing cancer for a number of years, successfully hiding lumps even from my mother. These may have been the actions of a man too rough ‘n tumble to be bothered with such matters. More likely, they picture someone lacking the interpersonal skills necessary to build a supportive foundation upon which he could pilot these stormy waters.
He was as lost as we were.
In the months that followed we learned well the half hour journey from our home to the Tom Baker Cancer Center where he would be subjected to one test after another, one trial after another, one failed approach after another. He lost half his body weight and was an eerie shade of grey-green. Ultimately, he was admitted as a long-term patient. I learned how to help my own father shower and use the toilet. Any preexisting awkwardness was forced out in this new and vulnerable frontier. Old fears and presumptions fell away every time I helped pull his pants back up or helped him into pajamas before he fell, exhausted, into bed.
I was studying classical voice and choral conducting at the time and would often sit by his bedside reading and even humming pieces I was to have memorized for the following morning. From time to time I’d look up from my textbook to be sure he was still breathing, only to catch him looking back. Our words were few to none. But, to us, those looks bore volumes of communication unnecessarily crowded by such things as talk.
In the early evening of September 15th we had been made aware by the doctor that he had contracted pneumonia as a result of increasing weakness and the pure oxygen that was keeping him alive. Ironically, in so doing, it crystallized his lungs, turning them into glass shells. He was given zero chance to live off the respirator. Despite the knowledge that this day was coming, we stood like plastic dolls, unable to speak.
This reality had us cornered, and we succumbed to its horror, saying our trembling goodbyes. I bent over to kiss his forehead, whimpering quietly in his ear, ”Goodbye, Dad. I love you. I always have.” It was one of the few precious “moments” we ever enjoyed together. He would be dead two hours later.
My father was that man about whom one says, “He was someone I never knew.” I cannot say however that he wasn’t the father I needed. I was as negligent and uninterested as he was tense and unable to forge anything substantive in our father-son relationship.
They say regret is a wasted emotion. Maybe so, but few emotional triggers are more difficult to undo. It lies in wait every time we are reminded how our successes bowed to failure, our fears grew through inaction, our relationships dug themselves deep into a quicksand of mutual ignorance or naïveté.
In the years that followed, I’ve been forced to come to terms with my passivity and self-driven carelessness regarding my father. It has left me struggling with mountains of regret and the self-loathing it can generate. Left untended, regret can cloud the soul and create blockages to the inflowing of new love, new relationships, even newness in old relationships.
With my Dad it wasn’t about forgiveness. It wasn’t even really about misunderstanding. I am ashamed to say that, for me it was, quite frankly, lack of interest. He was everything I was not but secretly wished to be: unyielding, unflaggingly committed, self-denying, self-forgetful, self-reliant, with a willingness to forego relishing in his fears in the interest of those he supported and loved.
My lack of interest and passivity crashed headlong into his inability or perhaps tentativeness to face something he’d never known himself, tenderness. The casualty? Relationship.
Since then I’ve done a poor job, although with lessening self-flagellation, at honesty and intentionality in human relationships. Friends, pastors, colleagues, and spiritual directors have all shared in this journey with me. The one message most readily cobbled together from their loving advice is this: if the gospel tells us anything it’s that there is always redress for regrets. The Way of Jesus keeps open the door that leads to new and renewed relationships, to companionship for the lonely and an anchor for souls adrift.
I miss my Dad. I regret never really getting to know him. I miss what might have been. But, the Way of Jesus, lived with courage, promises second chances for chances not taken.