Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 22, 1989

I was running late that morning, so I took a cab to work instead of the streetcar. That's how I missed the phone call from my mother. At 10am, I had just finished my break and logged back onto the phone line in the information unit at Customs in Toronto. I worked the phones before voice boxes and automated messages, in the days when we averaged 250 calls per day...per officer. As soon as I heard my mom's voice on the phone, I knew something was wrong. First of all, it was 10am, and she should have been at work. Second, she never called during peak phone hours. Third, mom never called me at work.

"Lisa, it's your mother."

"What's wrong, mom..."

"It's your father."

"What's wrong?"

"Well...he's dead."
I have no idea what else she told that day, except that my cousin was on her way to get me and I had to come home. My poor cousin Pat, we were not friends then. We were still working our way through a bunch of leftover teenage crap. She had been hijacked halfway to Toronto for a business meeting by her older brother, and charged with the duty of telling her not-very-close cousin that her father had just died. She didn't know what to say; my mom had already said it. Thankfully, she made sure that I packed correctly for the days to come. I had grabbed sweats and pyjamas, my cat and my makeup and I was good to go. She made sure I had a slip, an extra blouse, pantyhose, underwear...everything I needed for the funeral ahead. I had to make a trip back for my jeans and my car later; the family wouldn't let me drive myself, which was probably a good thing.

Mom had found dad that morning when she went to wake him to drive her to work. She always felt guilty that she was sitting in the kitchen eating her breakfast, letting dad sleep, glad he was having a good sleep for a change, never realizing that sleep would no longer be an issue for him. It must have been awful. I took comfort in the fact that I had talked to dad the night before he died, and the last words I ever said to him were "I love you daddy, I'll talk to you later." There are many years when that would not have been the last words we'd said to each other, indeed if we'd said anything at all. I tend to end my conversations with people I love by telling them. I learned that you never know what you might never again get the chance to say.

The days that followed are surreal. My aunt Gerry and aunt Linda arrived by nightfall, armed to the teeth with food. Harveys eat when we're stressed, and other Harveys feed. It's what we do. I came down the next morning, and there was a ham in the oven, two pots of soup on the stove, chili in the crockpot, and Auntie Gerry was standing on a chair in the hallway washing walls in her nightgown...and I thought it was fine and normal. Mom and I were in a fog. The Aunts told us to eat; we ate. I handled the phone calls that started as news spread, shaking uncontrollably while calmly giving the details of the funeral. No, there would be no visitation. The funeral would be Saturday morning, to give the rest of our family time to get there. The Donovans were travelling in the US; Auntie Kay needed time to get home for her brother's funeral. No, there's nothing you can do. Of course you should still go on your trip to Jamaica. It's okay. We understand. And we did.

My dad and mom had a burial plot in St. Eugene, Ontario, in between Ottawa and Montreal, beside my mom's father and mother. They had bought it for $75, including perpetual care, after my grandfather Harvey died. This is rural Ontario; they dig the graves by hand down home. It was November; the ground was frozen. Internment would have to wait for the spring thaw. My dad's family tried very hard to convince mom to buy a plot in Waterloo. I had to leave the room while the family discussed the location for plunking my father in the ground like he was a pet or a tree...I wanted to scream "you're talking about my daddy..." but I didn't. I left. Dad's brother Norman got his way on one thing, though. The casket was open. I wanted it closed; the Cheesemans wanted it open. I caused a minor guffufle by refusing to go past the middle of the room, and I never went near the casket. The corpse did not look like my dad, and even though I'd ironed the shirt personally that he was dressed in, I wasn't going near it. I wanted to remember my dad as he was, not as a waxen, made up stranger.

I wondered why so many people felt that we needed to know that dad died the same day as John that somehow made dad's death better because he shared the day with such an important and sad day in history. It didn't. I didn't need history to remember the day my dad died.

We got through it all, somehow. My aunt Betty came up, and stayed with us for a week after. I called the various places about the various bits of dad's life. I picked up the things from the funeral home, read the cards without comprehension, wrote my thank you notes, did what I was expected to do to support my mother in this horrible time...and marvelled in my occasional clear and lucid moments that no one was asking about me and how I was doing. I was always the "strong and capable one"; of course I was fine. Little did they know...I read the notes from people in my dad's life who seemed to know a different person than I did. My mom got rid of all the cards awhile ago in one of her "get rid of the junk" sweeps. I wished she'd asked me first, because I would have liked to keep them.

You find out who your real friends are in times of crisis. People I would have counted as friends were not. People I called chums or acquaintances drove from Toronto for the funeral, and held me up in the days to come. My close friends were there for me when it mattered. Wendy hunted me down in the basement of the church, and Janie fielded a hysterical phone call from me 2 weeks later when I was back in Toronto, and my mom was sick with pneumonia in Kitchener. The 20 something adult knew she was fine; the 10 year old child was terrified to lose her mom too. Janie talked me off the emotional ledge. They are still my close friends.

People can be callous. Someone I worked with, a seeming adult, commented that she didn't know why I was upset because it was not like I'd lost my "real" father since I was adopted. I came very close to throwing her out a window. Another clerk in a store demanded to see the death notification when I returned my father's already-purchased Christmas gifts. I pulled it out and slammed it on the counter and he processed the refund while a stranger, who I have since come to realize was probably an angel, held me tight in her arms as I shook. She disappeared before I got her name, but not before reporting the clerk's behaviour to the manager of the store. The clerk was fired on the spot, which made me feel worse rather than better.

Many of the things in my life that dad would have been most proud of have happened in the 19 years since he died. I completed my Masters in Political Science, I married, and I have an amazing little girl who would have run circles around her grandfather. She would have been charmed by the stub of his index finger; generations of kids were. My husband and my dad would have gotten along well; I married a card player.

I feel my dad's presence constantly. He hangs around to check up on us and watch his granddaughter. The morning after his sister, Kay died, two doves arrived on my deck in the middle of winter, and sat, watching Laura as she played in the kitchen. I've always associated doves with my father, since I started to notice them around after he died. I'm sure his sister brought her brother to see his granddaughter. Auntie Kay is the only one of his siblings who had seen her, after all.

So time passes. My mother and I still go to church together on November 22 to acknowledge dad's passing, and today will be no different. The tears are less frequent now, and sharp pain has faded to a dull ache. I found a box of pictures that had belonged to my father after my aunt died. My mom had forgotten they were there. I mourned dad all over through the loss of his sister, because she was my last link to the childhood he never spoke of, to the identity of the people in the pictures in the box that he never spoke of, to the haunted look in his eyes on Remembrance Day. The tears still come; just not as often or as acute. The love remains, and the misunderstandings and hurts of my youth have been balmed by maturity and adult insight. I love you daddy. I miss you...and I get it now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I've been keeping company with ghosts this week. Saturday will mark the 19th anniversary of my father's death, and he's been hanging around quite a bit this week. We were never really close when he was alive but I feel his presence often now. He died before I ever got the chance to get to know the man, rather than the father. I blogged about it on Fathers' Day.

Three other ghosts kept me company this week. A few days ago, I attended the Christmas show of the Waterloo Potters' Guild. I love handmade things, and the potters in our area are a talented bunch. I was on a mission to pick up some Christmas gifts, and replace a couple of the pottery mugs that had been broken over the course of the year. As I wandered the aisles, my eyes grew teary because of the presence of a few people that I had lost to cancer...or their spiritual presence anyway.

I saw a dragonfly in pottery and immediately thought of my friend Andrea, who fought hard to the end. I have a similar dragonfly hanging in my home, purchased the year Andrea died. It's a constant reminder of my feisty and courageous friend.

This time last year, I ran into my friend Julianne's mom Edelgard at the show. She loved pottery, and their home was filled with it. She was looking healthy and was laughing with friends over a shared joke. She had had a hard battle with breast cancer, and seemed to be on the other side of it...or so we thought. She was keeping a secret at the time; she'd already received the news that the cancer had returned and it was terminal. She didn't want to burden her family with that news at Christmas. We lost her in June this year. A warm, no nonsense person, a passionate reader, a teacher and a loving woman, I felt her presence acutely. I miss our chats on the phone when I phone to talk to Julianne. I would often stand visiting with her in the hall as I was leaving after visiting Julianne. I half expected to see her amongst the pots and platters, laughing and chatting with her friends. I miss her.

And finally, the presence of one person brought the tears to my eyes. Marguerite Szozda was a master potter, a true craftsperson, a generous spirit and someone I was glad to call my friend. Last year, she was in the final stages of cancer, but still had a booth at the show. She had mentored many of the younger potters, and they had promised her that they would tend her booth for her. They were as good as their word; her booth was immaculate, well displayed and never left unattended. The other potters told people about the remarkable woman whose hands had formed the bowls, pots and snowman tealight holders. I couldn't afford to buy one of her snowmen the previous year; last year, I couldn't afford not to. When I took the snowman to the cash, the person ringing through the order told me to "take special care of the snowman, because it was made by a very special person who was much loved." I confirmed her assessment, advising that I know Marguerite well. We lost her a couple of weeks before Christmas last year.

This year, Marguerite's husband, John, was working alone behind the scenes. He was putting boxes together, tidying displays, and helping out where he was needed...just like always. He and Marguerite were a team and it broke my heart to see him there alone. Marguerite would have approved. The other potters were joking and laughing with him, and I'm sure he took comfort being where he and Marguerite had spent so much time together. It gave him comfort; it broke my heart. He spotted me at the cash and came to say hello, and it was all I could do to keep the tears at bay. The ache in my heart was nothing to what his must have been.

And so I walk with my ghosts. I believe that the people who matter most to us don't leave us when they die, and we can feel their presence around us, and they continue to love, support and guide us. It might not jive with traditional Christian teachings, but I simply cannot believe that love dies when the body does. So I walk with my ghosts, I welcome their presence and although I miss their earthly presence, I continue to feel their love. The body will die; the love will live forever.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A kid's eye view

Sometimes, a child can put everything in perspective for you. My husband always takes my daughter out for Halloween, and I stay home and hand out the candy. Last night, when they stopped in midway through the scavenge, my daughter seemed upset, which she confirmed by wrapping herself around me and holding on tight. Seems there was a particularly scary house that my husband thought would be fine to take our 3 year old to, and it scared her witless.

I picked her up and hugged her for a few minutes, and when I put her back down, she asked me to take her out for the rest of the night "because mommy isn't afraid of anything."

To say I was gobsmacked is an gross understatement. You see, mommy is afraid of many things. In fact, mommy is afraid of almost everything. Spiders, bees, wasps, thunderstorms, being without work, (these days) the number on the scale, snowstorms, scary movies, what's living in the back of the fridge, singing the wrong note, acceptance of my writing, cellulite, grey hair, idiots who drive while talking on cell phones, cancer stealing someone ELSE I love...mommy is afraid of many things. I guess I've just become better at hiding my fear than I thought.

My mother is afraid of many things too. My earliest memories were of being dragged to the basement in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm. I grew up terrified of thunderstorms (and being caught in the woods during a particularly gnarly one didn't help things.) My husband LOVES thunderstorms, so I told him from the beginning that if Vampira woke up in the middle of the night in a storm, that he would have to go to her, because I didn't want to make her afraid just because I was. So far, she's never wakened in a thunderstorm and doesn't seem to mind them. So far, so good.

I grew up being taught to worry about what people think-that people's opinions, especially the family's, matter. It took me until 40 to realize that while it is true that how you are perceived in the world matters to a certain extent, going against what you believe matters more. I'm a bit of an enigma in my family, but that's okay. I decided that I was not going to live the second part of my life the way I lived the first half, and I'm trying to be more true to myself and my beliefs now. I'm happier. Some of the family don't get it, but it doesn't matter anyway. I get it, and I can live with myself. I'm trying to live without fear. Some days go better than others.

For my daughter to think that mommy is fearless was a boost for me. My daughter and I headed out hand in hand to complete the trick or treat circuit. We had to go by the scary house. I told her that we were going to sing "la la la la, you can't scare me." while we walked past. We did. It worked. When we passed the scary house on the way back, my daughter roared at it. She's learning not to be scared. She still clung to my hand, but she walked a little taller.

There are many things in life that will be scary for her. The trick is knowing how to roar at the fear. My daughter taught me some things last night. I have some roaring of my own to do-at building my website-ROAR. At going back to finish the YA novel I started and then let the opinions of others scare me off-ROAR. At making a real effort to market myself to find new business-ROAR. And to all the of the petty insecurities that have plagued me my whole life I say "La, La LA LA. YOU CAN'T SCARE ME." If it worked for scary houses, it should work for taking advantage of new opportunities. so ROAR ROAR ROAR...and I should trust my daughter. She's a smart kid.