Below is an essay I wrote when I was only 21, a little over a year after my father passed away. My writing style was a little different back then, and I’ve definitely learned a lot more about some of the themes mentioned in this post, but the lessons I’ve carried through life are the same.
I was inspired to post this essay on my blog after almost twenty years, after getting hooked on This Is Us recently. (A little late to the party, I know). As I sipped on my wine watching the show, tears rolling down my face, snot about to come out of my nose from the show always-fucking-pulling-on-my-heartstings, my husband (who also loves the show) looked at me and said “So, ummmm, do you relate to this show at all?”
Me: “Ummm, well, yeah, as one of three siblings who carries significant daddy-issue baggage many years after losing her charismatic, hero-like father figure at a young age….no. No. I don’t relate to this show AT ALL.” (Where is the Sarcasm Font when I need it).
When I wrote this piece, it was the first time I realized the powerful cathartic function of writing. And since I’m now finally caught up to the Superbowl episode of This Is Us where it reveals the fate of Jack Pearson, I’m going to paraphrase what Kate Pearson said on the 20-year anniversary of her father’s death: “I am going for the catharsis jugular.” I hope you enjoy this piece. This one means a lot to me.
I’ll never forget that gut-wrenching phone call. I had just completed my final examinations of freshman year at UCLA, and was packed and ready to move out of the dorms. If anyone were to truly share my enthusiasm, it was my father. Daddy’s Littlest Girl had to call Her Hero to yell “I’M DONE!” During freshman year, my most precious reward was hearing his contagious laughter over the phone.
What was it about hearing my father’s voice that was so valuable to me? Perhaps it was because he could turn the worst possible day into a humourous anecdote that would bring tears to my eyes from laughter. Sharing anything with my father, from my most trivial narratives to my biggest accomplishments, always triggered a fulfilling dose of comedy and pride.
Of course, I was just as easily entertained by his pointless stories. My father’s laughter resembled a squealing chicken when he phoned me on Groundhog Day in 1999. Everyone in Toronto was traumatized when the groundhog didn’t come out of its hole; unfortunately, this was because the groundhog had died. On the other side of the hole stood many dumbfounded Canadians, who, like my father, were hoping that the horrible winter would end soon. Nobody understood what it meant when the Groundhog died though. It was stories like these that made Daddy’s Littlest Girl the proudest daughter on the planet, and this feeling was clearly reciprocated.
I dialed home to report my latest news with an ear-to-ear grin. My mother answered and congratulated me in her usual “I’m proud of you, we knew you could do it” manner. I sensed an uneasy hesitation in her voice, though. In the background I could hear the muffled voices of my two married sisters, neither of whom lived at home anymore. I became confused when Mom quickly passed the phone to my sister Lisa, who replaced the subject of my final exams with distant questions. “So…how’s it going… what’s new…” Something was wrong. The phone was passed to my nephew Garrett. Then to my sister Elaine. Then to my nephew Mitchell. My confusion grew into frustration. Then worry. What the hell was the entire family doing at my house, and why the hell were they playing pass-the-phone? Finally, I heard another voice in the background. It was the voice I needed to hear. My father cried out with a weakened “Let me talk to her.” I grew apprehensive.
I have always been an overly rational thinker; therefore I rarely experience extreme emotion. When I do, however, I try to personify Grace Under Pressure. Though I was overwhelmed with fear, I wanted desperately at that moment to live up to my standard of composure. I allowed myself to feel relieved when I heard my dad’s usual greeting: “Hi dear!” I half-smiled. His voice was weak, but I played dumb. “How are you doing, dad?” I asked, even though I knew the answer was not well. I do not remember what part of waiting for my father’s response was more disquieting: my anxiously pounding pulse, or the deafening silence of the pause in our conversation. It finally came. “They’re setting up my bed. I got my bed today.” The optimistic side of me wanted to ask “What for?” but the logical side of me knew. I asked anyway. “What are you talking about?” Another pause. “I can’t walk anymore, dear. I’m too weak. They brought a hospital bed to the house.” That was my cue to start crying.
For the longest time, I convinced myself that I couldn’t cry in front of my father. It would destroy him to know that I worried about him and the cancer that he had been battling for 11 years. In his unselfish view, worrying would take away from the time I was supposed to be enjoying for myself. My young, healthy, cheerful self, getting the education that my father dreamed of, competing on the Division I swim team that he was so proud of. Even though his three daughters were raised to look Adversity in the eye, my father needed to hear me cry this time. The priceless value of our relationship had to be emphasized by the daughter who hated displaying emotion.
The emergency flight from Los Angeles to Toronto came instantly with my body’s adrenaline response. All I remember from that flight is a lot of self-reflection. My father’s spreading cancer was not what disturbed me most. If anyone could overcome such a dreadful disease, it was him; he exhibited an unparalleled zest for life that left an imprint on everyone he came into contact with. What truly bothered me was the decline in my father’s attitude after I left for University. His confidence had been replaced by complacency. I had always feared that his purpose would be limited once his youngest left the nest, but I did not expect his health to deteriorate so critically. During that flight, I did not know how I would react upon seeing him again.
More than anything, I hoped that my father would be in good spirits when I returned. I was convinced that if the bedridden Gord Noddle remotely resembled the healthy Gord Noddle, seeing him so ill might be easier to handle. I was confident that my father’s humour would be capable of suppressing the disease. The healthy Gord, you see, was a walking anomaly. His off-the-scale left-wing free speech habits contrasted his cynically conservative views on Canada’s Social Welfare system. If only Gord Noddle were Prime Minister, as the family joke went, life would be perfect. I guess his adaptability was what made him so popular. I hoped that this quality applied to dealing with his poor health as well.
When I finally arrived at my house, I mustered the courage to inch into my father’s bedroom. What I saw was not as horrendous as I had anticipated. It was a series of partial images. I noticed a propped-up hospital bed with a frail figure in the middle. I observed the irony of a large, radiantly healthy, curly head of hair that had grown back after chemotherapy had removed it all. I saw hollow cheekbones characteristic of an anorexic; such an icon of emaciation certainly did not belong to my father with his notorious love of food. This was not an image of my father; it completely defied his vitality. It was not until I heard his voice and received his smile that I knew that his entire character still resided in that room. “Hi Dear!” The strength and courage in his weak voice beamed through the disjointed image spread before me. Hugging his fragile body seemed okay, because I could feel his presence. The next comment he made was “Look at the MUSCLE! The weight coaches have done well with you!” All I could do was laugh and cry at the same time. In retrospect, I understand that my health and athleticism symbolized what my father could no longer have. I knew that my remaining time with him was a blessing and an opportunity to learn how I would carry his memory with me.
As I began to reminisce about the man that I was so proud to be born to, I realized that humour was the best way for me to deal with my emotions. Remarkably, the biggest source of inspiration was my father himself. In the 11 years before my father became bedridden, his energetic spirit disguised the cancer. If it weren’t for his appearance of fragility at this point, his charisma would continue to conceal the viciousness within his body. The most valuable reflecting I did of my father was of the unconventional upbringing that my sisters and I experienced.
On drinking: “Look, Dear, I’m not going to tell you not to go out and party, you’re going to do it anyway. Just respect yourself, don’t make an ass of yourself, and don’t bitch about your hangover in the morning. If you drink too much, the best thing for a hangover is bread.” Ironically, I rarely had the desire to drink growing up with a grueling 6-hour-a-day swimming schedule.
On being a scrawny, skinny swimmer in high school: “Look, Dear, if you’re buying a dress for your prom, don’t be afraid to get something with a nice slit up the side. You don’t need to worry about your flat chest because you have nice long legs.” My sisters and I learned that by laying our insecurities on the table and focussing on our positive attributes, we could accept ourselves for who we were.
On getting my driver’s license: “Look, Dear, I know you have my lead foot. If a cop is ever chasing you for speeding, pull as fast as you can into a parking lot because they can’t ticket you on private property.” I am proud to say that my dad’s advice has helped me to reduce a few speeding fines, all while being respectful to any police officers who ever pulled me over.
On sex, with three friends while drinking and playing cards with my father at the cottage: “Look [Kristin]. And all of you. Before you all go away to school, you need to learn about the guys there. They’re all assholes. You want to know how I know? Because I was an asshole too. You need to keep a good head on your shoulders. All young guys give a shit about is Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am. They don’t even give a shit about giving a girl a fucking orgasm and they don’t even know how!” This scene did not embarrass me as it took place when I was seventeen, long after my friends and I had grown to appreciate the uncensored Gord.
My father’s courageous battle allowed him to live through the summer, long enough to see me turn 20 on September 3rd. He wanted me to return to UCLA for preseason training, because he didn’t want me to miss a beat of being with my team during the Olympic year. I sensed also that this was his request because he was again protecting me from witnessing the worst to come. It was the most difficult decision of my life, but after speaking with all of his palliative care nurses, I knew leaving was what he wanted. Less than one week after I returned to school, on September 15, 1999, my father passed away. I knew immediately that his memory would give me the strength to speak at his funeral.
I was not surprised that there were more people at the funeral than could be seated. Everyone from the local auto mechanic to the most pretentious person in a business suit was present. The effect my dad had on people transcended society’s stereotypical class boundaries. In our tributes, my sisters and I wanted everyone present to walk away with a generous share of his passion, sincerity, and humour.
The most defining moment of the funeral was my sister Lisa’s liberated version of the uncensored Gord, when she repeated my father’s critique of the movie Risky Business. My dad declared that the movie would have been much better if at the end, the father had said, “Sometimes you just have to say ‘What the fuck’” instead of “What the heck,” because using the word ‘heck’ spoiled the whole movie. This typical tale of Gord caused even the priest to laugh uncontrollably. My family was pleased that throughout our eulogies, everyone present was laughing as loud as they could through their tears. We excused people from having to be tactful when they told us “that was the best funeral I have ever been to.”
To this day, I continue to assess myself on a daily basis to make sure I’m “dealing with things” in a healthy manner. In honour of my father, I had the symbol for “Courage” tattooed on my lower back. Courage is laughter. Courage does not judge. Courage is confidence. Courage was my father. My family’s habit of psychoanalysis resulted in my label being “The Strong One, even though she’s the youngest.” When you lose a parent at age 20, you begin to understand a ridiculous amount about yourself. I know that my father would want me to continue the laughter and the Carpe Diem approach to life that he had. After all, if I didn’t, he would kick my ass.