The last photo of my Dad and I together is a beauty. We are at my brother and sister-in-law’s cottage in Lake Louisa, Quebec. We are in a place we both loved, a body of water, swimming in the lake, talking, unaware of being photographed. It was August 2009. It was our last weekend together as a family. The week after, he entered a hospital for a bladder reconstruction and he never came out. And, that last beautiful summer we all seemed to know, silently, that this was it for him and that we would never be all together like this again. We each carried it around silently like the extra couple of pounds after a weekend of his great cooking. The photos of that last week show a looming energy. There is happiness and joy and goofiness but there is also melancholy behind it all.
The kitchen was his domain – the place where he created delicious meals for us. He was a master in the heart of the house and nothing gave him more pleasure than being able to care for people – usually with delicious food he made but also through his inherent kindness of giving his arthritic mother’s feet a pedicure, teaching his kids and grandkids about nature, opening his home to a niece and a nephew and building a cottage for his family. I will always be grateful to him for everything he did for us all and for showing us how to have fun and how to laugh. The last photo taken of my Dad is of him in a frilly apron hamming it up in front of the stove, an empty frying pan on the burner foreshadowing his absence.
It was here that he created his last act of love for his family. The night before he returned to the city, in the tiny kitchen of his son’s cottage, he made a chicken pie for us all for dinner. It was huge so that we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding ourselves during the difficult time to come – there would be leftovers for the next day. That’s the kind of guy he was; ‘a peach of a guy’ was what his palliative care doctor called him 6 months later in the last week of his life. And she was right.
This delicious chicken pie was laced with vegetables including red peppers. The peppers were aggressively red, almost an impossible red set against the white flesh of the chicken just like the impossible parts the surgeons would put into his abdomen to create an impossible organ. We packed up the cottage and set back to the city, the leftover pie was pushed into the fridge in the city as we made our way to the hospital. It got jostled around over the next couple of days and got pushed back behind the mayonnaise and milk. My father started to deteriorate not long after.
The fridge was cleaned out and that leftover pie, forgotten and well- spoiled by then, was dumped into the garbage. Its slick contents slid out into the bin with those impossibly red strips of pepper, a bright shock to my eye. It was gone, the last meal that in our despair we had all forgotten to enjoy.
He died on this day 10 years ago. He was 68 years old. The shell of his body was still emitting a faint warmth as we walked out of the hospital into a frigid Canadian February. I looked at other people in the parking lot going about their lives as if it were business as usual while my world felt irreparably different.
Over the past ten years I have kept myself busy. I fled to China to teach for 10 weeks, my grandmother and oldest friend in Australia died, I adopted and then lost a cat, I moved into a tiny apartment of my own, I started and quit a PhD, I started and continued a volunteer teaching project in Solomon Islands, I quit smoking, I have given educational talks about sharks to young kids and I have read and written more than I ever have in the other 40 years of my life. But, what I have done mostly behind all of that was form a deep connection to grief.
This doesn’t mean that I have been inconsolably sad for a decade. Sometimes the connection is active and involves tears, sometimes passive with dull aches, sometimes I erupt into laughter or a smile slowly forms thinking of a great memory. This connection has changed over the decade but it is still there. It has become more contained and manageable. It is now like the security blanket I had as a child that my mother wisely and kindly cut into a smaller and smaller square until it could fit into my pocket. Grief is still with me like that. It is a comfort. It reminds me that I know what love is and that my grief is just all the Dad-shaped love I still have for him that does not quite seem to fit into the shapes of the others I love. I hope he knows this love is endless and still exists for him. I am glad to know it does.
February 10, 2020