These weekly guest posts are mostly about dying in our current healthcare system, and the ways in which end-of-life care sometimes rises to the challenge magnificently and sometimes fails us. But we can’t ignore the topic of grief. This week, guest author Tobin Elliott probes his own grief over the death of his father. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross delineated five stages of grief in her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Tobin’s grieving was dominated, to begin with, by anger.
by Tobin Elliott
I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my father held so dear.
The Living Years – Mike & the Mechanics
My father wasn’t a very nice guy.
Oh, he could be charming, he could be witty, in the way Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin seemed to be back in the late 50s. You know the type–well built, well dressed, well groomed, handsome, often with a drink in one hand and the other arm around the waist of some good-looking dame. That was my father, in part.
But he was also the John Wayne or Robert Mitchum type. The type of guy that knew how to fight and not only wasn’t afraid to fight, but actually relished the opportunity. He’s the guy that would be in the middle of a flurry of fists, but he’d be the one smiling.
My father was an alcoholic, and often a violent one. He was hopelessly insecure, but could drown it under gallons of booze and sexual conquests and bloodied opponents.
That was the father I knew up until 1967. He would leave us for months at a time when he’d promised to stay home after I was born. When he was there, he would set me on his lap and either show me the wonder of some geegaw he’d built out of a thread spool and an elastic, or, better yet, get me laughing at some silly face he pulled.
Yet, most of the time, he simply couldn’t help himself, and off he’d go and we would be abandoned. I was not quite five years old when my mother had had enough and left him.
After the split, he took me to the CNE and left me “for a few minutes” to get a drink. He never came back and my mother had to come from Oshawa to get me. He never remembered that incident. I wasn’t even six yet.
I saw him quite a few weekends over the next few years, until he took me out–driving drunk–and scared me so badly that I called off the weekend visits. I was eight, and my dad scared me.
I ran into him a couple of years later. I was walking into a store as he was walking out. He scowled at me, too drunk to recognize his own son. I was ten.
Over the years, we lost contact, until around 1980, when I’d heard he had moved to Calgary and seemed to be getting his life together. He was employed for the first time in a long time and he started writing me. I wrote back, and, the following summer, I decided to go out there. The plan was to leave at the beginning of summer and stay in Calgary for the summer with him.
I lasted a week.
Two years later, I was twenty, and I came home late from a shift at work. When I came in the front door, I saw the look on my mother’s face and knew something was horribly wrong.
“It’s your dad,” she said, tears brimming. “He’s dying.”
All of this was found out in the days that followed, but the bones of the situation were this: For whatever reason, my father either gave up or gave in. I’ll never know which, but in his last days, it looked like he just stayed in his bed and drank bottle after bottle of booze. We know this because when my brother and mother went out to clean out his apartment, they found a mound of bottles at the side of his bed.
At some point, perhaps sensing his body was in distress, or some random circuit closed in his brain, he left his apartment and stumbled out into the streets of Calgary. I’ll never know how long he walked, or where, or why, but eventually, he collapsed in the street. Then some kind soul found him and stole his wallet.
So, when he was finally taken to a hospital, he was admitted as just another drunken and comatose John Doe.
He was there for almost three weeks, his internal organs shutting down one by one.
Somehow–I’m still not sure of the details–he somehow managed to regain enough consciousness to give a nurse a name, possibly a city. I’ll never know who that nurse was, or what they had to go through back in 1983 to find a family member with no information to go on, but somehow they reached my aunt, my father’s sister. From there, they were able to call out to the rest of his family.
Within five hours of my mother telling me dad was dying, he was gone.
He died alone, never knowing if anyone even knew.
I have a lot of anger for my father, and three decades ago, it was often a wild and raging thing. And him dying without me being able to even say goodbye? Well, that was him just abandoning me yet again.
I actually went into work the next morning. When my fellow employees found out my father hadn’t been dead even twelve hours, they all questioned why the hell I was here. How could I explain that I felt so little? There wasn’t pain, there wasn’t grief. There was a deep, empty hole, edged with anger.
Looking back on it now, I can honestly say I didn’t know how to react. On one hand, he was my father, what most people would consider a “loved one.” On the other hand, he was this guy that only disappointed me, forgot about me, abandoned me. Try to explain that to someone when you’re twenty years old and don’t even know what you’re feeling yourself. I certainly couldn’t put it into words. I struggle to do it now.
My father died on Sept 20, 1983, my brother’s 30th birthday. By the time we got his remains back to Ontario, he was buried on my 21st birthday, Oct 6.
Then, for most of the next five years, I tried to forget I’d ever had a father. I didn’t really talk about him, and if I did, I’m sure there was a sneering expression on my face. I was still angry.
Then, one day, an extraordinary thing happened. It would have been very, very close to the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. I was working in a graphic design shop in Port Hope. Usually, there were four of us in the place at any one time, but for whatever reason, on this day, everyone had left and it was just me and the radio.
And a song came on. The Living Years, by Mike & the Mechanics.
As the words came on, I couldn’t help but tie it to my father and I. Then I heard
So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts
So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different date
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be O.K.
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye
That was all bad enough, but then the next verse came on
I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say
By the time it ended, I was a mess. I was sitting at a drafting table and I was sobbing.
All the pain, all the anger, all that pent-up rage was spilling out of me. I felt like an idiot, sitting at work, blubbering. I honestly didn’t know what was happening to me. I finally had to leave the office and take a drive. I told everyone I’d gone out for lunch. Then I tried to put the entire damn thing behind me.
But, less than a week later, I was on the 401, cruising along at 110 km/h, my wonderful girlfriend (now my wife of 25 years) at my side.
And that damn song came on the radio. And then it happened again. Tears. Sobbing. What I’ve heard women refer to as “ugly crying.” And my then-girlfriend, now-wife kind of panicked, because we were still doing 110 on the highway, so she managed to get me to pull over, then, over probably the next half hour, I spilled my guts about my dad. I told her as much as I could. It was likely mostly an incoherent mess, but she just listened and let me go.
When I was done, I felt hollowed out, scraped clean. I’d had no idea all that stuff had been buried in me, but it had. For five long years.
After that, whenever I heard that song, I could face it. I know I wore a sad smile, but all the ghosts that surrounded my father and his death had been pushed back. Not necessarily exorcised, but definitely put at bay.
One last bit to this story: Flash forward another four years to 1992. It was October, again, around the anniversary of his death. Nine years gone, and I was about to turn thirty, and I was a little lost in my life. I was happily married, and I had a beautiful daughter, but I was still searching for something I couldn’t even define, let alone see.
And that scared me, because, in a way, that was my father. He’d always sought something he couldn’t grasp, and it did him in. I didn’t want to follow along that path.
So, a few days before my birthday, I found myself standing over his grave. “Dad,” I said. “I’m still angry with you. You pissed your life away because you couldn’t walk away from the bottle. You lost me, you lost mom, and you ended up dying before you could even see me get married. You have a granddaughter who will never know you.” I sat down, leaning against the headstone and cried.
And then, once again, something extraordinary happened.
I am not a believer in God. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve always believed that when we die, that’s it, we’re done.
And yet, as I sat, leaning against that headstone, I went from being bummed about where I was in life, concerned about my future as a father and husband and breadwinner, to looking up at the night sky with first a smile on my face, then actually laughing out loud.
I found myself filled with an overwhelming joy at just being who I was at that moment. The worries fell away and I felt unreasonably fulfilled. I was happy.
And I swear, I felt my dad there beside me.
Today, I’m just a little over a thousand days younger than my father was when he died. My rage and anger is still there, but now it’s burned down to embers for the most part. And most days, when I think of my father, it’s his laugh that I remember.
And I remember how he made me laugh. And I remember how he showed me the wonder of it all.
About the author:
He’s been married for 25 years and has an amazing daughter and son. There’s also a couple of cats and a dog in there somewhere, too. He’s taught creative writing since 2000, and has had three novellas and two short stories published. He’s also a member of the WCDR and participates in the Muskoka Novel Marathon every year to raise money for literacy programs. He lives in Courtice, Ontario.