the days my daddy died

22

My father, his dog Kimmy, and me age two in 1958

My father was a handsome, intelligent, charming and troubled man.

He grew up in a well-to-do family with many privileges, but his childhood was less than idyllic. He suffered from allergies and painful eczema; sometimes rice was the only thing he could eat for weeks. His relationship with his own father, a decorated war veteran who later became a vice president of Bell Canada, was strained. He called him “the old man.”

At 16, he ran away from home. His whereabouts were unknown for a year until a family friend ran into him by chance in a cinema in California where he was working as an usher. Who knows how he got there, thousands of miles from his home in Quebec. His mother had been sick with worry; he had never called or written to say where or how he was.

He met and married Mom when they were in their early twenties. They lived in Vancouver, across the country from their families. My brother and I were born there. By all accounts Dad and Mom were happy on the west coast. But even those early days were not without issues; he began dabbling in the stock market, and tumbled deeply in debt. The old man bailed him out.

Then, just before Grandpa died in the late 1960s, Dad fell out with his two elder sisters over Grandpa’s estate. He wanted his share before Grandpa died. When they refused him, he didn’t speak to either for nearly 40 years.

In the meantime, we had moved back to Eastern Canada. I remember many good times with Dad, particularly in winter. He built an ice slide down the hill next to the house we lived in at the top of Clough Street in Lennoxville. The mini “luge,” which we slid down on our bottoms, was a big hit with the neighbourhood kids.

When we moved to a place in the country, he hollowed out huge piles of snow he shovelled himself to create igloos big enough for his six-foot frame to stand tall and for us to play in. He got up before dawn to drive us to far-flung events when we skied competitively; I can still hear him cheering as I crossed the finish line. He built stalls in the barn so I could keep Pony Club ponies over the winter even though he was allergic to horses. He was the master of ceremonies on Christmas mornings, sitting closest to the tree and distributing presents one by one, waiting as we opened them in turn.

These are happy memories. Others are painful.

One January night when I was 13 the two of us trudged up to the barn to mend a broken rail. Our breath blended and froze in clouds as I held the flashlight and he plunged one nail after another into a previously virgin two by four. In the midst of it, his anger at my mother boiled over and scalded me.

“All women are good for is growing a pair of tits and going out and getting a man,” he accused. After he went back to the house to resume the argument that had prompted the soul-destroying statement, I sat alone in the frigid barn and cried.

He drank gin and water in tumbler-sized glasses, and lost several fortunes in the stock market, which would have been fine if he’d had several fortunes to lose. I will never forget the day Mom walked into the kitchen crumpled and defeated by his addiction to speculating in gold stocks.

“The bank is going to take our home,” she choked out between sobs. He had used our home as collateral to buy stocks on margin. When the margin was called, he didn’t have the funds to cover it. Mom willed herself out of shock and managed to save the place by remortgaging it at 17 per cent.  I still wonder why she didn’t leave him then.

Several years later there was a court case around the questionable use of one of his client’s funds. Dad attempted suicide. While he didn’t manage to kill himself, part of him died anyway. Six months later, when I was “home” for Christmas, I sat beside him on his and Mom’s bed. Ferocious tears ran down his cheeks as he thrust the tender side of his forearms toward me–failed suicide scars laddered up from his wrists to his inner elbows.

“Look what your bitch mother did to me!” His words slammed against my chest. His rage frightened me.  Another little death. In 1990, I loaned him money. In 1991, when he and Mom finally divorced, he wanted more. After I said no, he didn’t speak to me for 15 years. He moved to Ontario, and lived alone in an apartment. His mental health declined, and he continued to play the stock market. When he began hoarding and neglecting his own physical health and hygiene to the point where he collapsed and was found by the neighbours, he was moved into a long-term care facility.

Across the years of deadly silence I sent birthday cards, Christmas cards, Father’s Day cards and letters. He never responded. When I was in Canada at Christmas in 2006, he called. He had become more frail; he wanted to speak to me.

“I’m a millionaire Sue,” he said. The stock market had finally repaid its debt, but not in kind.

“That’s nice Dad,” I said, feeling sad.

“I love you,” he said.

“You do? What about all the cards and letters I sent Dad? The ones you never answered?” I hadn’t given up hope of understanding.

“That doesn’t mean I stopped loving you,” he replied. I didn’t know what to say to that so I said nothing. My heart beat hard, and there was a lump in my throat.

“How is your life Dad?” I asked.

“God-awful,” he said. “Just god-awful.”

“I’m sorry Dad,” I said, meaning it.

The following Christmas I called him at the nursing home. There was no answer. I called back and spoke to the facility director. He was fine she said, just not in his room. I emailed her a link to AmazingWomenRock and attached a picture of myself. She emailed back to say they had shown Dad the website and pinned my picture in his room. He was happy to have the photograph, she said. He was proud of me, she said.

A couple of weeks later he fell gravely ill. He died on January 14, 2008. I hadn’t seen him for close to 20 years. Besides good and bad memories, Dad left me money. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able stop working, leave my life in Dubai and return to Canada to care for my mother. I wouldn’t have been able to hold her hand on this final part of her life journey; I wouldn’t have been there when she died. Our relationship wouldn’t have healed as it did, and I wouldn’t have experienced unconditional love. That’s quite a legacy.

In a strange twist of fate, even when my daddy really died, he didn’t. He lived on in a better way.

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22 Comments

  1. Pingback: the shame belongs to someone else

  2. Lorrie Beauchamp on

    Beautifully written, as always. If more of us were able to put things in perspective like this, and learn to see that something positive can emerge from pain… that’s my definition of enlightened. You enlightened woman, you! So happy that you’re here to help us with your stories and insights.

    • Thanks Lorrie, and I’m glad you’re there to comment 🙂 trying to see and do good helps me to give meaning to what’s going on. It would be even more painful if I believed it were purposeless.

      Your comment made me think of the story of the little girl who, when put in a room full of shit, began whistling and singing as she shovelled her way through it. A surprised onlooker asked her how she could be so happy in the midst of all the muck. She replied: “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

  3. I constantly am amazed at how alike our lives are in so many ways even though we live at opposite ends of the earth.

    My parents married young against family conflict caused by religion. I was born the following year when they were 22. Although money was tight I didn’t know that and had a wonderful childhood. All my friends envied me my parents who were both extremely attractive.

    Dad was an accountant and very good with everyone else’s money, not so good with his own. Luckily Mum was great with money.

    In later years Dad started drinking heavily – gin and water! Can’t stand the smell of it! Dad also had an extremely nasty tongue when he was drinking.

    He died in 2001 of cancer.

    After his death he has been guiding me. For example getting the flat next door for mum to move into, organising things so I could retire early for Mum and John and also guiding me with my dealings over the earthquakes!

    Great news, my repairs etc are being started before the end of the month – only waited five and a half years.

    Re my Dad and my Mum I have found that now I can remember all those wonderful times when I was younger which I couldn’t so much while I was caring for them all those years. Then I was just concentrating on giving them the best quality of life I could.

    • Yes Diane, it’s interesting how we have lived parallel lives on opposite ends of the earth, and even more remarkable how we found and connected with each other across such a great distance. It just goes to show the universe is a very small place. I love following your blog with its day-to-day vignettes, and real accounts of what it’s like to care for someone who lives with dementia. Thanks again for all the good work you do.

  4. your story is so powerful. i have read it twice already and i am still sitting here in amazement.

    my adopted father was awesome but it was my adopted mother who was similar in personality to your father.

    my wonderful father died in january 2008 from alzheimer’s — on the 23rd – -a bit over a week after your father.

    i sit

    in awe

    om

  5. Sitting and reading and crying at the thought of this sad and tormented relationship. Glad you have found some peace and healing to that fractured part of your family. We all have stories of tremendous joy and unbelievable heartbreak. Thank you for sharing yours.

    • Thanks Holly, your tears and support mean a lot to me. And yes, you are right, this is the human experience. Sometimes I feel conflicted about what I write and wonder whether it’s right to share as much as I do, but it’s like I’m both pushed and pulled to do it by invisible forces that are beyond me.

      Unfortunately the family pattern of this post has not been broken in my generation and I fear it will continue in my brother’s children, but I am unable to heal it alone 🙁

  6. Susan, Just read this about your dad. Like your other stories, this one is filled with wisdom. It is incredible, that he finally made money from the stock market, the thing that kept ruining him . It brings up for me a difficult question: how do we know, when to keep going in endeavors that others think are foolhardy or harmful, or when to stop.
    I’ve been meaning to write you to tell you how much ALL these stories mean to me. Several times, I’ve been brought to tears, over the stories you tell about your mother and her Alzheimer’s journey. Esp. the one about her friend and the singing.
    I think you are brave, and interesting, and AMAZING.

    • Thanks Ruthy, yes, it’s supremely ironic isn’t it? And all kinds of questions arise for me as well. The stories bring me to tears too, as I live them, as I reflect on them and as I write them. The emotions pour out all over the place! It’s hugely helpful and meaningful to me when people comment and share how the telling of my experience impacts them others. I’m so grateful for that because I’m often filled with self doubt and second-guessing. Thanks for following, reading and commenting XOX <3

  7. I remember that time Susan, and how sad you were… how lovely now that you can tie this legacy to him. I’m sure he is smiling from up above to know that life has once again completed the circle of joy, pain and purpose.
    Love you x x

    • I’m so glad you are there to remember the things I sometimes choose to forget Lynn! And I love your words: “the circle of joy, pain and purpose.” That pretty much sums up life! XOX

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