Monthly Archives: December 2014
Two years and one day ago, I tweeted the following picture:
I was so happy that night. Things were good at school, Christmas was coming, Hapax was out and I was clearly on my way in writing, and I was suffused with love and good will for the people at Black Creek, my coworkers truly becoming my friends.
Less than twenty-four hours after I posted this picture, my life shattered.
I went to choir the next morning. This was December 16th, 2012. The Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and part of the sermon reflected on the loss of so many lives, the pain their families now carried through the Advent season. I can’t even imagine, I remember thinking, my toes dangling off the back of the kneeler. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, losing someone so close to the holidays.
Less than twelve hours later, I knew.
My father died two years ago today. And honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s been two years. My dad is dead. He’s been dead for two years. It doesn’t even make any sense that my dad—my vibrant, lively, healthy dad—is dead. But two years? Jesus Christ.
This may be a little trigger-y for a bit. If you want to scroll down, I will put a picture of a cat. Past that, it’s all hope and love again.
Okay. So sometimes, I still need to talk about the horror of that night. Sometimes, I still need to tell the story again. This is, I’ve found, something that happens with grief. Friends and loved ones can be reluctant to bring up the event, in case it makes us sad. Well, guess what? We’re already sad, and talking it through, recapping it, putting it in order again, and again, and again, is the only way that we’re going to process it. Saying it out loud makes it real, but it also brings it out of our heads. It gives a bit of distance, so we can try to understand what the fuck happened.
Even two years later, I still need to tell the story sometimes.
So, around 9:00 pm on Sunday, December 16th, 2012, I was sitting at my kitchen table. A friend was over, doing some rough sketches of Serafine. Shortly, she and my other friend were going to watch Love Actually. I was trying to convince myself that I could totally take another night off studying for exams, because Love Actually was a Christmas tradition and I hadn’t seen it yet that year. Of course, I really needed to study, but—
My phone rang. It was my sister. She explained that she and Mom were coming to fetch me right now, and then we were all going to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident playing hockey.
I was not overly concerned at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time he got hurt. When I was small, he’d nearly lost an eye when he took a hockey stick to the face. Maybe he did lose it this time, I thought. Because I had been in hospitals before, I had the presence of mind to pack my bag with my textbooks and notes. After all, waiting for X-rays and CAT scans took a long time; I’d be able to study while he went through those.
As I tugged my boots on, I suddenly thought of my grandfather. During my first year of university, he’d driven himself to ER, promptly had a massive stroke, and died a week later. Wouldn’t it be awful, if—if—but no. I figured that maybe worst case scenario, Dad had taken a really bad blow to the head. Maybe really, really worst case, there’d be some brain damage, a bit of rehab. But that was super-worst-case. It couldn’t be that bad.
My mom and sister picked me up off the street, and we drove to the hospital. Traffic crawled. I remember the copper-orange of the streetlights. At one point, we crossed the foot of my friend Blythe’s street. I’d just been to her apartment for the first time, and I gazed up the street, wishing that Mom could just turn here, like I was just going to hang out with her.
My grandparents arrived at the same time we did. Some of Dad’s hockey team were already in the waiting room. I knew some of them—they all seemed very shaken. Memories fragment here. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I remember trying to shield my sister, dragging her over to a vending machine around the corner.
A man in scrubs led us into the labyrinth of emergency care behind the receptionist. He had blue scrubs, a long black ponytail. We passed curtained-off alcoves, cots and IVs flush to the wall. As we walked, a curious numbness settled over me. This is the scariest thing I have ever done, I thought. I remember thinking that, but also still hoping that later, the warm flush of relief would come. God, Dad, we were so scared, and for nothing—isn’t that funny?
The man in scrubs led us to a small, cream-coloured room. It had two brown, slippery couches, a shiny black coffee table holding a Kleenex box, and a cross on the wall. That’s when I knew that things were very, very bad. You don’t bring people into rooms with crosses if everything is going to be okay.
The man in scrubs explained that Dad had had a “cardiac event” and had gone down on the ice. Wonder of wonders, there had been a firefighter and a cardiac specialist on the opposing team. CPR had started right away, they’d used a defibrillator right away, and the ambulance had been called right away. Absolutely everything that could have been done had be done, as quickly as possible.
And they’d not yet been successful in resuscitating him.
I may or may not have been slightly aggressive with the doctor. I may or may not have been told to relax. Then we went to see him. Around yet another corner, there was yet another curtain, a sectioned-off portion of emergency. We went behind the curtain.
And I knew, the moment I saw him.
There was no resuscitating. Not anymore. We were long past that. It was disorienting—on the one hand, it was just Dad, lying on a gurney. On the other, he looked so old. Chalk-grey skin, shirtless, tubes going into his nose and mouth, electrodes on his chest. A technician furiously doing compressions. Dad’s mouth gaped open a little, and that’s what really struck me: the way his cheeks sagged inwards, the way there was absolutely no muscle control, everything was just limp. Lifeless. Two years later, and I still sometimes see it. The horror doesn’t lessen with time. You just don’t think about it, until you do, and suddenly, you’re back in that room, with the metallic smells and the beeping, and Dad’s cheeks collapsing on themselves.
We asked how long they’d been doing this.
About forty minutes.
How long could they reasonably keep doing this?
They were about at the limit.
So, if his brain had been forty minutes without oxygen, then—
Then it was time to stop.
I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t touch him because I knew that he was already cooling, and I was too scared to feel it. And so, cowardly, I stood very close, wanting to touch him one last time, wanting to give one last hug. Someone asked if we wanted a chaplain. “He’s Catholic,” I said. “He needs Last Rites.”
Tears spilling from our eyes, we wandered the emergency department: making calls, trying to figure out next steps, reassuring the hockey team that it wasn’t their fault. I vaguely wondered what the other patients thought. Probably they knew that some lives had just been permanently changed. We’ve all been there. We never think we’ll be the people crying.
I wandered back just as a chaplain began the Lord’s Prayer. I collapsed next to my grandparents and said it too. I don’t think they realized I knew more than “Our Father.” I talked to a cop. I gave dates of birth, addresses. I agreed that yes, I was very young. I stayed with my sister, who was refusing to leave the body.
But then I looked over, and I saw that a rosy red flush was blooming along the underside of Dad’s cheeks. And that is another horrific detail that’s branded itself into my memory. See, for a scene in Hapax, I’d had to research what happens to the body shortly after death, and so I knew precisely what this was. Without the action of the heart to keep blood circulating, gravity will cause it to pool at the lowest points of the body. When a body is lying on its back, that’s the undersides of the arms, the legs, the face…
I was right, I thought.
And then I had to leave so that I could go vomit. I never saw my dad’s body again. (My choice, incidentally, to not stick around for the open-casket portion of the visitation later that week.)
We returned to my mom’s house. I had to send a bizarre text (“Sorry, I can’t study tomorrow. My dad died.”) and then I called my childhood best friend. Numb, shocked, broken, I didn’t want to go to bed, because I dreaded waking up—I didn’t want that moment of remembering what had happened the night before, feeling it fresh all over again.
I think I fell asleep around 5:00 am. I was up by 7:00. I emailed my registrar, asking to defer my exams on Wednesday. I emailed my bosses, asking not to be called that week. And then I called my friend Rachel-the-Anglican-Priest. I’d been in her office the week before, seeking counsel for stress and family tensions. Now I had to explain, “So…new developments…”
This whole thing was so bizarrely scripted.
As promised, the picture of the cat says that things get a little more hopeful from here.
My maternal grandmother and I went to the church around eleven to sort out funeral details. Although my Dad was technically Catholic (and while I still am, technically), they could do a very inclusive service. They could recommend a good funeral home. They could help us through this—it was going to be all right, I had a community at Grace Church that loved and supported me.
I had cried in the hospital, but it had been like the tears were seeping out slowly. My grandmother stepped outside of the office, and then, alone with Rachel, I sobbed for the first time. And when she told me that it was terrible, and unfair, and painful, but that they were all there for me, I believed her. For a while, I’d considered Grace a safe place—but here it was, when I needed it most, as a rock in my life.
Thank you, all of my family at Grace, for doing infinitely more than I could ask or imagine. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, God is there.
Around two o’clock, I was at loose ends. My sister had been swept away by her friends and Mom was huddled on the couch with all of the relatives. I paced aimlessly. What would make me feel best right now? I asked myself. Who do I need to be with?
The answer was undeniable, if somewhat surprising.
Blythe. Right now, I need Blythe.
Sure, we were friends. Sure, we saw each other outside of work. But this was heavy stuff. Was it too heavy? I hesitated, looping the kitchen. The answer didn’t change. And so, I texted her, asking if I could come over and escape the madness for a bit. As I sent it, I figured that I’d get a responding text in a few hours, maybe.
She called me before I’d even slipped my phone back in my pocket.
My uncle drove me to her place. At that point, I’d actually only been to Blythe’s apartment one time, so I was a little uncertain as I directed him there. But, soon enough, I was standing outside her door. As I jabbed the doorbell, part of me wondered what on Earth I was doing. The rest was just too numb.
The door flew open. “Hi!” Blythe said. “Come on up!”
Turning, I waved to my uncle, then followed her up the narrow staircase. Maybe we made awkward small talk, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is that Blythe went into the apartment ahead of me. I bent down to take off my boots. When I glanced up, she was standing in the middle of her kitchen, looking at me: not with apprehension, but compassion. Suddenly, absolute certainty rushed over me. This was the right place to be.
She hugged me. She badgered me into eating part of an apple. Gave me odd jobs to distract me. And while the two of us tend to have different accounts of these sorts of things, I think it was then that things changed between us. We were friends before, certainly, but supporting someone in so much pain and shock is an entirely different thing. When I needed someone, she was there without question. I honestly do not think I could have managed those first few months without her.
Thank you, my friend—thank you, and all of my love.
On Wednesday, I went to work. I remember running out of the car, throwing the door open before Mom had really stopped, and booking it through the village. Like Grace, this was my place of safety. This was home. In hindsight, it must have seemed bizarre. Here I was, roaming the village with a haunted expression, dodging crowds of schoolchildren. This was my workplace—why on Earth was I there?
Because I needed to be. And credit to my supervisors and coworkers, they let me do my thing. They let me wander bleakly, surround myself with the people and places I loved. Some people came to the visitation that night (for which I was profoundly grateful, I couldn’t have done that without them—walking into the funeral parlour and seeing the casket, it was heartbreakingly, crushingly real). There was a card, filled with love. My boss sent a handwritten note. I still have all of these things.
Here is the thing about death. For the most part, it doesn’t make sense. If this was a novel, my editor would never let me get away with it. “What? And then he dies? No, that’s stretching credibility too far.”
When death strikes like this, the normal rules cease operating. And so we cry in our friends’ offices. We crash other friends’ dinner parties. We walk around our workplace because reasons. And people, for the most part, are just as stunned as us. Unsure how to react, they do the best they can: opening their arms with love, drawing us close, holding us near.
When you are grieving, nothing makes sense. You worry you’re too sad. You worry you’re not sad enough. You worry about burdening your loved ones. And at the same time—you need, desperately need that human connection. You need to be able to tell the story, as often as it takes. You need to be vulnerable, to cry—and also, sometimes, you need to go skating and live normally for a few hours, away from the sadness.
And if a grieving person comes to you…ask them. Ask them if they need to describe what happened again. Ask them if they just want to sit. Know that they may think they’re fairly functional, but in several months’ time, they will realize that they really, really weren’t.
Love us. That’s all we need.
It saddens me that almost everything that is now important in my life—working full time, Stonecoast, the nice young man, beer, my writing family, my current friendships—happened after Dad died. My life now is completely different from my life two years ago. But that’s what happens.
We heal, but we don’t recover. I will never not be sad about my dad. Every December will be hard for me. The body remembers, longer and more vividly than the mind. The body remembers the fall of light, the weight of the wind, the pattern of the clouds overhead. We don’t get over the loss; we make it a part of us, growing into and around it.
When a writer loves you, you can never die. Dad’s fingerprints touch my work now, even if it’s his death bleeding through again, and again. In the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Sara’s grief plays out alongside my own. In short story after short story, I try to use words to build a ladder down into the abyss, using fiction to go where I can’t.
Two years on, and I am usually happy. Sometimes I am sad, but usually I am happy, and I miss my Dad more than all those words can say.