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.


Atlantic Writer said...

Thank you for expressing so beautifully what those of us who have lost our fathers feel. True friends truely do shine when tragedy strikes and I'm glad you had some to be with you. I find it difficult to know my children will never know the grandfather that brought so much into my life - but I too see his presence with them when I don't expect it. Take comfort in knowing he's with you and keep him alive through your memory. Know also, despite what some thoughtless and ignorant people may think, he was your father in every way that counted.

Divawrites said...

Megan, I know what you mean about your children and their grandfathers. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, so I never knew what I was missing, until I see my daughter with her paternal grandfather. I'm glad she has one, although my father would have adored her. He tried very hard to be a curmudgeon, and kids and animals figured him out in nanoseconds. He was "Grandpa Jack" to the kids in the neighbourhood where my parents lived, because he would sit daily in a chair on the front porch so he could smoke. The little children mourned him as much as the family did...and so did my Tortie cat who hated most of humanity except me...and my father and mother.

lara said...

I stumbled upon this in a google search. I was googling my birthdate. Beautifully written memoir though by the way.