Remembering Pop

Pop at home in Ottawa, c. 1991.

It is a week of remembrances, in a month of loss, in a year of change and fear. Pop left us 10 years ago today, and like most of the recent past, it seems like both a lifetime ago and just yesterday.

In a book I read recently, the main character and his friends have a tradition of recognizing the 10th anniversary of the death of a loved one by sharing a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and sharing stories and memories of the departed. I have no wine, and gatherings are not a good idea these days, so instead I’ll write down some random memories and stories, and have a few moments of remembrance on my own.

The photo here is from the one photo album I have at home, and is one of the few pictures I have of him. The album is very random, including a few photos from childhood and then many from the early 90s when I moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Its location in the album allows me to date the photo to 1991. It’s from the first visit I made to Ottawa to visit Pop, his wife Susan, and my brother, Jamison. I was there for just a weekend in the winter, but it was momentous for me because I had not seen Pop in nearly 10 years, since my early teens. For me, this visit was fraught with anxiety and anticipation. Much had changed for each of Pop and me since we’d last seen each other. I’d grown up, graduated, graduated again, moved away and established a life away from home. In many ways, he’d done some of those same things – moved away, gotten married, started a new career – but his journey involved leaving us kids behind and untold other destruction in its wake. Hopefully, mine hadn’t been as destructive to others.

Later on first night of the visit, when we sat down for supper, he raised his glass in a toast, looked me in the eye and said, “this weekend, we are not going to talk about the past, okay.” It wasn’t a question, it was a pronouncement. While I wasn’t expecting explorations of past things said and events missed, I was expecting some kind of acknowledgement as a step towards reconciliation. I don’t remember much about the rest of that visit with Pop, except getting sick later in that night, something I thought of as a physical manifestation of letting go of the hurt and anger I’d been keeping inside that now had nowhere else to go. It is perhaps fitting that there are no photos of us together from that visit.

Thor and me, c. 1999.

Over the subsequent years, there would be more and better visits, including a few with more reconciling and open conversations, acknowledgements and memories, and more memorable times. I got to know Susie better, got to meet the great dog, Thor, and got to know Pop as I grew into more mature adulthood. Our relationship never truly became one of father-and-daughter; he was more like a close and infuriating relative.

There was also plenty more loss in those subsequent years. Pop’s parents, beloved dog Thor, Susie, my own marriage. And then in 2010, more loss than I thought I could stand. A good friend’s husband died suddenly (the year before, but the loss lingered on for a long time), and then his mother died in June 2010. A few weeks after that, my colleague and friend Cecelia Suragh died very suddenly. And then in November, Pop.

Pop’s death was tragic and sad. Considering his life in the immediate years prior, it was not too unexpected, but still a significant blow. The week after he died was a whirlwind of arrangements and travel and strangers and strange things. My sister, Jodi, and I did everything together that week, made the necessary choices, did the required tasks, and together fended off those that threatened what little peace we could find amidst the wreckage, fiercely defending our memories of him and how we wanted him to be remembered – as our Pop.

When working on his obituary, we struggled with finding the right ways to list people and describe his life in just a few sentences, balancing being kind with being honest. That it would go in the Globe and Mail was obvious to us; if we could have arranged for it to appear next to the cryptic crossword, we would have. We wanted to include a song lyric, since music was such a big thing for Pop, so we looked to him for suggestions. He had a song playlist on his laptop that he’d played a lot up to the end. There among The Eagles and Gordon Lightfoot was a song from Eddie Vedder‘s soundtrack to the film Into the Wild, a CD that Jodi had sent him a few years earlier. The song was called “Guaranteed”, and we included a line from that in his obituary, a couplet that to us reflected his life of defiance, decadence, independence and loss:

‘Leave it to me as I find a way to be…I knew all the rules but the rules did not know me.’

So how will I acknowledge today? How will I celebrate that life and acknowledge the loss? I’ll listen to some of that music, and some other songs we both loved, from Blue Rodeo, Harry Chapin, Joan Baez, and Laura Smith. I’ll talk to Jodi at some point, and we’ll have a laugh and a tear and miss hugging each other. And while I’ll be sad and wistful and laugh at some remembered stories, I’ll recognize that today is a milestone; not an ending or beginning, just another step in time, another day that passes, a part of the circle. Another day in which I think about him, for I do almost every day. Just that today, I’ll think about him a lot.

“No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.” From “Circle” by Harry Chapin.

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