Only four months into our marriage my husband and I were struggling. The arguing, the shouting, the silence. I thought maybe we had got married too soon. James and I had been together for only eight months before heading off to Mexico for a simple beach wedding. How could things be going so wrong so soon? Was this normal? The question of my life.
James and I met in June 2013. I remember the first day we connected. It was Father’s Day. We had known each other in our past lives, as we came from the same hometown and had been in the same circles while in our twenties, although we didn’t spend too much time together and I don’t imagine either of us were all that sober.
To get a Facebook message from James all these years later sort of took me off guard. It came out of nowhere, or at least that’s what I thought.
The week before, my dad had been transferred from hospital to an assisted-living residence. After ten years of slowly deteriorating, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson's. We were told it was now quality of life, not quantity. He was only sixty-two.
It was very painful to watch my dad’s health decline; plus, there were struggles in our relationship for many years. For the five months prior to his diagnosis, I didn’t visit him and I hardly spoke to him. His ability to communicate had diminished so drastically that he was hard to understand no matter if it was in person or over the phone.
Being told there was not much time left, I knew I had to finally face my fear and go see him. In the meantime, James and I started having more and more communication. Some emails back and forth, a couple of phone calls, just getting to know each other. He was still in our hometown, while I had escaped early on in my twenties.
Going to visit my dad that first time, in an assisted-living home, I struggled to hold back my tears while I was with him. I didn’t want him to see how difficult it was for me to see him in that place.
My dad was a Canadian powerlifting champion and an avid cyclist; he also loved riding his motorcycle and was an adventure enthusiast. He was a strong man, a physical man, who loved working hard in his body.
To see him lying on a bed, swollen legs, catheter, hands that no longer worked, drooling, unable to sit up on his own, and unable to communicate was utterly heart-wrenching. He hated it. I hated it. I’m absolutely positive he hated it more than I did. Those last few times I saw him before his death, he cried his eyes out. The whole time I was with him, he cried. He told me he loved me, he apologized, he asked me to not be mad at my mother anymore, he asked me to take care of her. He was mostly concerned about my mom and if she would be okay after he was gone.
For better or worse, my father was my mother’s protector throughout his life. I guess he thought it was his life’s mission to take care of her. No one came first before her. Even in those few times I saw him before he died, he was most worried about what would happen to her after he was gone.
I would drive to Brantford, spend a few hours with my dad, and then meet up with James. We went for drives, sat in the park, found random benches in nearby small towns to spend hours and hours sitting and talking. With James, I instantly felt his warmth, his full presence with me, and his kind and considerate eyes. It was such a contrast to be falling in love while my dad was dying.
I was with James the afternoon I received the call that my dad had been admitted to the hospital and I had to come right away. Already? No, it can’t be happening yet. He would pull through again. Even when I knew he was dying, I really believed it would be a year, maybe more. There was no way it could be happening so soon.
James dropped me off at the hospital around 5 p.m. to join my mom and my brothers. My dad was in distress, but he was still conscious. We were all there, gathered around his bed. I held his hand, told him I loved him, and in garbled speech he said the same back to me through the tubes. In moments, he was out from the drugs the doctor had given him, but none of us realized this would be his last waking moments.
As the hours passed, they moved him to a quiet room where our whole family could be with him. The nurse would check on us periodically, and around 9 p.m. I remember my older brother Sean asking the nurse what was happening. She said they were just trying to make him comfortable and that he was dying. Even hearing her say it, I still didn’t think it would happen that night. I thought we would still have a few more days, possibly weeks. It couldn’t happen that night.
My dad’s siblings and mother came to the hospital. My grandmother held my dad’s hand, her oldest of five children. She kept looking at us and saying he’s going to be okay, he’s going to pull through this. But she wasn’t telling us this, she was asking while crying.
He slowly started to slip away. I remember the nurse coming in to check on him and thinking, Aren’t you going to do something? But she acted like this was supposed to happen and she had seen it so many times. It felt like I was the only one who didn’t know he was actually dying in those moments.
As he slipped away and his body started to get cold, my mom could no longer keep herself together. She started saying over and over again, “Allan, Allan, you can’t leave me. Don’t leave me. I can’t do it without you.” I realized she was going into shock. I had to take her in my arms and rock her back and forth like a little child. I had to take her to the bathroom to be sick and then wrap her in a blanket.
We sat like this for a while, both of us crying, while my dad lay on his bed. The hospital staff let us sit with him until we were ready. I didn’t want to leave him, I thought he would be so scared and alone without us. He might wonder where we went to, why we would leave him all by himself. I guess that was the child in me not realizing what happens when you die.
It was in those last few moments of my dad’s life and my mom’s reaction to his death that I finally realized I could not possibly ever comprehend the relationship between two people who had been married close to forty years. In fact, it was nothing less than self-righteous of me to judge their relationship. Who in the hell am I to think I might, for even one tiny moment, know what it’s like to spend a lifetime with one person? Without knowing all of their private moments, the fears, the growing pains, the love that is built when you commit yourself to someone like that, how could I possibly judge them?
We left the hospital around 2 a.m., and I went home with my mom. I had this feeling of not knowing what I was supposed to do next. How could I possibly just go home, and go to bed, or wake up the next day and do what? How do you even live the next moment of your life when something so powerful and shocking happens like the death of a parent?
But my mom and I did go to bed. We curled up in her bed together, but I don’t think either of us slept. He’s gone. I can’t believe he’s gone. I remember feeling like a string that had tied me to this earth was cut and now I might just drift away into space. How would I ever stay grounded? Such a strange feeling, especially since I was not that close with my dad in the years prior to his death. I guess our ties to our parents run deeper than we will ever understand.
I completely resented and hated the viewing and the funeral. Three days of people coming up to me and crying, or coming close to me, wanting to hug me. People I had met when I was just a baby, wanting to remember something with me. I felt like saying, He was my dad! Let us be alone with him, have some privacy. Besides, I don’t really feel like taking care of YOUR sorrow and grief.
In the following days, weeks, and months, I realized that the death of a parent is extremely private and personal. I was floating around in my head most of the time, drifting through memories both recent and long-gone. Trying to find a place to put it all inside of me. It’s like I wanted to organize it into something that would make sense. It didn’t make sense; it still doesn’t. My moments of mourning came unexpectedly. At night, falling asleep in bed with James. Or, on my yoga mat, as soon as I would come to the floor to close my practice, the tears would start falling. My life with my dad had many twists and turns: love, anger, resentment, joy, fear, abandonment, safety, sickness, growth.
It’s been nineteen months since my dad passed away. In some ways it feels like much more time has passed, and other times it feels like I haven’t dealt with his death at all.
James has been here the whole way: he was at the funeral; he helped me so I could be there for my mom in the months afterwards. It was time to sell the family home, the one we grew up in, where all of the memories lived. In some ways, it was a relief to move out of that house as we all played a part in creating memories there we would rather forget.
I remember the last day in that house. I went up to the top floor — my parents’ room, my old bedroom — and looked around at the empty walls. It was like a slideshow of everything that had happened, good and bad. God, I cried my heart out. I was also a person in that house whom I was still ashamed of, and it was time to let this go as well. In some ways I felt a bit scarred by the things that happened in that house. Who we were. Who we wished we would've been.
James and I got married on February 8, 2013, almost eight months after my dad died. We had a private Mayan ceremony on the beach in Mexico. No family, no friends — just James and me. We prayed to all four directions to bless us. We prayed to ancestors past, my father and James’s father to keep watch over us along this journey. I felt my father's presence there with us. In spite of our differences, I know he loved me deeply. All he wanted was for me to be happy. The day before he died, I considered bringing James to meet him. But James and I had been dating for such a short time that I didn't think it was appropriate. Instead, I told my dad all about him. My dad was just so happy (and tearful) to hear that I had met someone.
Witnessing my parents’ love for each other on my dad's deathbed has stayed with me. It was only a moment, but I felt like I was sitting back and could finally view the big picture. It was such a powerful moment in my life. My parents were married young, and they had three children early on. They worked hard to provide a home for us. At that time, I could only imagine what it might feel like to have your partner leave you after forty years of those tiny moments together, the hopes, dreams, disappointments, and times of great joy.
Now being married, I see how the relationship with my husband is born. It takes work. In those first few months, we went for counselling. We had to learn how to communicate. We each bring our history to this relationship, our familiar patterns of being in the world. Alone they may have worked, but as a couple there is someone else to consider.
As a very good friend said to me when I came to her about James and me in those first few months: “Joy, it’s a match made in heaven, even when it feels like hell.” She was right.
James came into my life at a very difficult time, and it felt like the most natural thing to have him near me. His touch, his warmth, and his love. Every time we would argue, I would ask myself if I could picture my life without him and the answer was always no. We just had to work our way through the rough spots. I'm certain there will be many more along the way, and I'm hoping we will be lucky enough to have forty years together to work through them all.