is it better to burn out than to fade away?
It was all very unexpected. That is, I think we expected, on some level, that my dad’s life might be shorter than most given his rebellious lifestyle — we used to joke that we’d engrave his tombstone with amused himself to death, a nod to one of his favourite Roger Waters’ albums — but there was also a part of us that thought, watch him be the guy who lives to be 100. We certainly never expected him to pack his bags for the long journey to the other world before the age of 60. A few days before he died, he said, “Looks like this cat has run out of lives.” And yet. And yet, there was still hope because we’d all witnessed him survive the previous eight — cancer, heart attacks, kidney failure, car accidents, you name it. Dad’s in the hospital again, we thought. Don’t worry he’ll pull through, he always does. He’ll be fine, right?
He died on August 15th of last year. I got the call that afternoon from a hospital hallway with crappy reception thousands of miles away. Mom, having to shout in the receiver for my blessing to pull the plug. He went in for a silly stomach ache and 10 days later, we were talking about pulling the plug. What the fuck? But there was no chance of him recovering. And if he did, it wouldn’t be a life worth living. I gave my blessing. Of course, I gave my blessing. It was the right thing to do, even though also the hardest.
Later that night, in the darkest hours, the phone was handed to me to say that he was gone. He left this world surrounded by my mom and my two sisters. And they held his hand until the very end, until the very last breath. I wept for hours. And when I woke up, I wept some more. That’s the thing about grief. You do that for a while. You tear up when you least expect it and then you carry on with the business of living and then you feel guilty when you’ve gone a day without thinking about them. And then those days are few and far between and what you are left with are the happy memories.
I hadn’t seen him in two years. I regret that to this day. The last time I saw him was the day before I moved to London. I was anxious and sad to be saying goodbye and I felt very much like a kid again, looking to my parents for comfort. He just gave me a hug and sang, “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be alright.” Music was always the thread that connected us. That is my last in-the-flesh memory of dad. I suppose one can’t really ask for better parting words from a parent.
The thing about having a big fat ocean between me and my family is that the distance creates this weird warp, which sometimes makes me feel like he’s still there on the other side of the pond. But the thing is, you see… I will never see my father again. And I really grapple with this concept of never again. I will never see him do his goofy Axl Rose snake dance while singing Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I’ll never hear him read Foglia’s column in La Presse and get pissed off about the government (bloody government was always pissing him off). I mean, the guy was a Québécois separatist to the bone. He had opinions a dime a dozen and he wasn’t afraid to share them. It was always “Christ, Rick…” or “Câlisse Jean…” or “Tabarnac Daniel…” followed by some rant or another, generally political or socioeconomic in nature, often red-faced, and usually ending with tata-ti tata-ta, indicating that there was so much more he could say on the subject but he’d run out of steam. On the flip side, he always told a joke twice if he got a good laugh out of it. Back-to-back, because that’s how he rolled. And he was so generous. He never had much money but what he did have, he usually gave to others. He loved to spoil people and help those less fortunate (if the government wasn’t going to help the poor, he bloody well would).
But what I hate the most about never again is that I’ll never get to say, “Ok, so you weren’t Steve Martin in Father of the Bride, you were more like Keith Richards, but THANK YOU for the good stuff.”
When we got home from the funeral, I made an appointment with my doctor to have a casual chat about fertility. Nothing like the death of a loved one to get you thinking about your own mortality, your future, and what really matters. I was told it takes a woman my age — my age! — on average six months to get pregnant. The doctor basically said, “What are you waiting for? If I were you, I’d go home and have sex NOW”. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what she said.
And so I did. Doctor’s orders. Two weeks and three pee sticks later, I was pregnant.
Wren was born on the 27th of June, 6 days after what would have been my dad’s 60th birthday. If that isn’t the circle of life, I don’t know what is. One burns out, one comes shining in. It breaks my heart that he never got to meet her. But something tells me they crossed paths up there, wherever there is, where old souls go and new souls are born. Him on his way up and her on her way down.
Yesterday, I played some CCR for Wren and memories came flooding back. Music will do that to you. And it reminded me of a road trip I took with dad from Nelson BC to Banff Alberta, many years ago. It was an impromptu visit and an impromptu road trip and at the time I wasn’t particularly pleased with him showing up on my doorstep without warning, but it was his first time traveling out west and so we got in the car and opened the atlas and popped CCR in the CD player and that was our soundtrack, on the highway, across the mountains, past black bears and bearded goats staring at us from the side of the road and us buzzing on too many Tim Hortons coffees — Canada’s high-octane rocket fuel.
I don’t remember us talking much. It was a quiet time with my father where we didn’t need to hash out all the wrong doings. He just enjoyed, I think, being able to see this marvel of a Canadian landscape. And I enjoyed getting to know him for the first time in my life. And through it all, there was music. Always music in the CD player. Just like there had always been music playing in our house when I was growing up.
Dad started my musical education/appreciation at a very young age. “Listen to the lyrics,” he would say. And when I was a young punk dancing to Ice, Ice baby, he liked to remind me, “You do know that is the baseline to Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie, right?” “Whatever, old man!”. But now, now I get it. He was a poet, that dad of mine. And I think maybe my love for words actually stems from him.
My favourite memory of dad was when we saw Roger Waters play at the Bell Centre five years ago. He must have paid a small fortune for those tickets but Waters was one of his idols and The Wall hadn’t been performed live in 20 years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This show was on dad’s bucket list and I’m so grateful that he shared it with us. It was the best damn show I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s because we were doing something as a family, something we hadn’t done since we’d all become adults. Might also have been the doobie we smoked with pops during intermission — what can I say, he was a man of the 60’s and my sisters and I were all, “Free pot! Woohoo!” I will cherish the memory of that night forever. We were all so happy. He was so happy and that is how I want to remember him.
I miss you dad. There is so much of you in me and so much of me in Wren. That strength of character of yours is trickling down the generations — un vrai caractère, the French would say. Even though you’re no longer here, you shine on, you crazy diamond.
Thank you for the good stuff.