The day it first occurred to me that my father would die, I drove to the local health centre to meet him after his appointment. I arrived at the parking lot – it wasn’t large – didn’t see my parents’ van and called to see where they were. My dad told me he was at home – he didn’t have the test they’d planned because the doctor had found cancer. My knees buckled and I had to catch myself from falling by holding on to the car roof. I learned I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was.
When my father died, I was a buddhist. Him being Catholic clergy, this didn’t really sit well. We had many conversations and he seemed to find some peace with it, but I always had the sense that he felt like he’d lost me to the other team.
I’d resolved to transform my life – shitty job, lonely, sad, and poor – by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo for two hours a day and within a couple of months, a white furry saviour on four legs came into my life, I was offered the job of my dreams, and the son I’d given up for adoption at birth returned to my life and my heart. Born and raised in another city, he just happened to be staying in my hometown, and my work just happened to bring me there to set up an election campaign room.
So, when my father died, he’d come to know and love the grandson he’d held at birth without knowing if he’d ever see him again.
My father loved the song my son had written, “Coca Cola kids” but I’m almost certain I heard him singing “Pesi Cola kids” – my father as a young child in the early ‘40s sometimes stopped in at the local speakeasy in our hometown and the bartender would ‘get the kid a pesi cola.’ Pesi Cola became my dad’s childhood nickname. Or so the story goes.
My father was an artist. As a young man he would, on occasion, jump the train into the Algoma highlands to paint for the day, always returning for dinner. Or so the story goes. I have no doubt that he jumped the train to get to the highlands to paint, but I wonder if he really got home for dinner.
When he learned that his grandson had an artist’s inclinations, he gifted him with a set of drawing supplies and his best advice. “Just draw.”
Before my dad died, the privilege of working in the town I’d grown up in afforded us time to spend getting to know each other as adults and having all the talks.
He worried that he hadn’t lived a life that would send him to heaven, and I had another reason to despise an institution that would do that to him.
When I asked if there was anything he felt was left undone in his life he answered with the heart of an artist, “there’s so much more to paint.”
I told him that he could keep painting after he’d passed and that I’d be looking for his skies (he always said painting skies was the hardest) and he smiled at the idea.
When my father died, he died at home because that was his wish. And when the time came, I was able to move back into my parental home to honour that wish and help to fulfill it.
My father fought death like a champion boxer. He would not take a bedpan and insisted on walking to the bathroom. We’d moved his reclining chair to the bedroom because it afforded him more ease in his body than the bed.
Once, while my mother and I were trying to help him up by each taking a side, my dad slipped out of our grasp, heading to the floor. My mother screamed for my brother to come and help.
The last thing I heard my father say out loud was “stop yelling in my fucking ear” through gritted teeth. It makes me laugh to this day.
Another time, after he’d become non-verbal, I tried the lift solo, wedged my toes against his, took his arms at the elbow and levered him up from the chair.
Once up, I told my dad that it reminded me of standing on his feet to dance when I was little, and the look in his eyes told us he remembered.
Somehow my dad was able to grant my mother’s wish that he wait to die until after their 45th wedding anniversary. He went the day after. I joked that he’d had to put in the full 45 years to assure himself a place in heaven, but the truth is that when my father died, my mother lost the love of her life.
My father’s dying on Palm Sunday was hugely inconvenient. Protocol on the death of clergy required a full mass, attended by the diocesan leadership, all ordained clergy should be in attendance. Protocol for Holy Week, spanning from Palm to Easter Sundays, meant no masses were to be celebrated on any day but Wednesday, short notice when the announcement would be in the Monday papers (life was different 17 years ago).
Many people who would have wished to attend did not find out about his death until after the funeral was over.
And still, the afternoon before and morning of the funeral, the line of visitors for my father’s wake stretched from the front of the back of the building and spilled out into the street the whole time. There was no pause in the receiving line to take a break to eat. My mother’s beloved cousin had tucked a package of red licorice under my dad’s head – they’d always had red licorice on road trips, and she wanted him to have some for his final journey.
We were so hungry in line that we considered pulling it out to eat, but I can’t recall if we actually did.
When my father died, I felt my work was done and did not want to stay in town for the funeral. But sticking it out meant that I heard stories about my dad that I’d never heard before:
About how he’d saved a woman’s son from drowning in the Buckley Creek when they were little – she held me in a hug sobbing that her son was alive today because of my dad; about the many ways he’d touched people’s hearts and lives in his pastoral and everyday life; I heard how he talked about me with pride to his Underground Painting Group; and about how he’d struggled through my choosing Buddhism with a friend, a nun and my former high school teacher, and about how he’d come to love and accept that; she told me that he could feel it when I chanted for him. She told me that he loved me very much. And even if I already knew that, it was something I needed to hear.
After my father died, the skies were more spectacular than I’d ever seen them. My father lives in my lover’s voice, even though they’d never met. He’s heard the stories, and often says “Now there’s a Ren sky” when there are really no other words to describe its beauty.
A crow followed me for months cackling every time the big white furry saviour on four legs misbehaved. “Remember how that bastard used to run away every time you left the house. How much time did I spend on chasing him on my bicycle? Caw caw….” Yep. I’m pretty sure my father played around as a crow after he died.
I remember my father’s letter to me on leaving for university containing his best advice for finding peace in the chaos of academia – “find a tree to sit under and make friends with it.”
Months after my father died, my son told me how he’d sat under a tree to do his summer school assignment – create a painting. Feeling clumsy and frustrated at his efforts, he closed his eyes, took a few breaths and said to himself “You’re Nonno’s grandson.” And when he opened his eyes, the sky was more brilliant than it had been before and he painted a painting he was proud of.
I told my son the story of tasking my father to paint skies for us after he’d passed.
Seventeen years later, he still is.
March 20 is the anniversary of my father’s death. It was a Sunday then too. Maybe that’s why this, the 17th anniversary, feels more tender for me somehow.
My father lives in my heart and my cells and my knees more fit for a football player than a skirt. My mom had great legs, but no….
I see my father in my son’s face and hear him in his gentle speaking voice.
My father lives in this house he’s never set foot in – in his paintings hanging on the walls, in the pink orchid blooms he was so proud of growing himself, in his mother’s century old Christmas cactus blooming beside them, and maybe even in the crow that spent half an hour bouncing on a tree branch outside my bedroom window, justafeckous…