It’s truly hard to believe that it’s been eight years since my father died in my arms. It’s said that moments of great trauma stay with you forever and every single moment from hearing the first screams from my friend, Ans, are seared into my memory like they happened yesterday.
The day started out like many others with my parents. Dad has asked me to come down and help him with a few things around their place on the lake in Shady Rest, where they had spent thirty-five wonderful years. Although Dad had terrible asthma he refused to quit smoking, saying his doctor told him it was too late to clean out his lungs anyway. For over twenty some years he had pretended to my mother that he didn’t smoke, although we all knew she didn’t buy that one for one minute. You can’t kiss a smoker and not know it. He would put us all in an awkward situation when he would sneak off to have a smoke and my mother would ask us where he was. Finally he gave up the ruse and smoked in front of her, all day, every day. It was so ridiculous to see him smoking, start wheezing, then grab his puffer and alternate between his smoke and his puffer.
In better days my parent had a daily routine of “Happy Hour”, usually around four o’clock when they would sit out on their porch and have a few drinks. As my mother’s Alzheimer’s got worse and worse, Dad couldn’t handle it and he started drinking more and more. He would phone me up every single day, crying and telling me he couldn’t take it anymore. He just didn’t have the patience to deal with my mother asking him the same thing over and over. He would get angry and say she just asked him that, not accepting that she had no clue she had. A very sad memory is one day he had reduced her to tears during Happy Hour and I lost it on him. I asked him how happy she looked and blew up at him for his lack of understanding of her disease. The only reason I knew he got me was that he stayed silent, which he never did if he disagreed with you.
One of the things he wanted to do this particular day was to move the boat anchor, as we did every year. It involved unhooking the floating tire from the chain to the anchor, dragging the anchor in to what was now deeper water, then hooking the tire back up. This year he also wanted to replace the rusty bolts holding the tire with new ones. As soon as I got there in the morning he started asking me to do the anchor. The water was still very chilly so I was in no hurry to do it. I procrastinated all day, hoping he would forget about it until a warmer day and warmer water, but no such luck. With every successive drink he started bugging me more and more, so I gave up and agreed to move the anchor. In hindsight it was the biggest mistake of my life.
No sooner had we waded out to the anchor, where the water was just deep enough that you could touch your toes on the bottom, than my Dad said he couldn’t do this and had to go in. Dad was never a strong swimmer and I think he was panicking a little that he couldn’t touch the bottom, which, tragically, he could if he could just relax. One of the reasons I had not wanted to do the anchor this day was that I did not have my contacts with me. I usually wore them when I went skiing so that either my glasses wouldn’t fall off or I would be skiing blind. Why I took my glasses off this day I don’t know, but the work I was doing to the anchor was close up and I could see close up with no problem. Distance was my challenge.
As I worked away on changing the bolts, now working by myself, I had the tire on an angle which prevented me from seeing the beach, not that I could see that far anyway without my glasses. The reason I point this out is that, because my view was blocked by the tire I didn’t see that Dad had not made it to shore. The next thing I know Ans is shouting from the beach about my Dad. I let go of the tire and as it fell back to floating I could barely make out my father floating face down off shore. Everyone’s worse nightmare came true as I struggled to run in waist deep water desperate to reach Dad. The closer I got the more I panicked as I could see he was face down in the water.
To this day I have no clue how I managed to lift up my very heavy father all by myself and carry him all the way up, across the deep sand beach, to the lawn. As soon as I laid him down on his back I saw my mother standing on the porch with a look that scared me. My sister was standing next to her and I yelled at her to call 911. It was at that moment that I so regretted never taking CPR, something I swore I would do as soon as I started boating, but never did. I started using what little I could remember, pumping on his chest and turning him over to clear his throat of water. Although I may have appeared calm as neighbors started to gather around, I was more and more frustrated that I was doing something wrong because I couldn’t get a single drop of water out of him. I just knew I must be doing something wrong.
As pure luck would have it, the emergency medical team were on the Westside on their way back from responding to another incident. They arrived within four minutes of my sister’s call, which was amazing. As soon as they approached my Dad I was so relieved because I assumed they would take over the CPR I was trying to do, but they said I was doing “just fine” and wanted me to continue. Even though my Dad was lying on the ground in front of me at I least felt a tiny bit better that I wasn’t killing him with my lack of CPR knowledge.
Another totally unbelievable thing that was happening as I did the CPR on my Dad was that an RCMP officer had also responded to the 911 call and he was pestering me with questions as I tried to save my Dad. His line of questioning was suggesting that I had somehow drowned my own father, which really pissed me off. Finally I shouted at him, asking him if he didn’t see my father dying in front of me and to “shut the fuck up”. He got the message, loud and clear.
As the minutes ticked by and the EMT were doing everything possible to revive him, even I knew that his brain has been starved of oxygen too long to just come out of it normal. As they loaded him into the ambulance and we got Mum ready to follow him to the hospital, I didn’t have the heart to tell her he was gone. As we organized vehicles to take us to the hospital my Uncle Earl, Dad’s brother, pulled up. Although I was a little impatient to be with Mum at the hospital I owed his brother some explanation of what had happened. His immediate response was to ask me what I had done to him, suggesting I somehow was responsible for this death. The anvil on my shoulder grew even heavier with guilt at the thought that maybe I had failed to save him.
The whole hospital experience was a tragedy. My Dad was hooked up to all these machines keeping him alive, but if you know anything about this, the body goes through involuntary twitching. Every time he twitched my mother thought he was okay. It was so sad. Everyone was crying and we were all refusing to accept that he would not survive, and even if he did, he would be a vegetable because of the long time without oxygen to his brain. As we started talking about our pending decision to take him off life support we got another surprise when the doctor told us this was not our decision in BC and it was up to her. Although we were a little relieved that we didn’t have to make this decision, we were surprised to learn it wasn’t ours to make. Another shock was that we learned that Dad had signed a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order, meaning his wish was not to be kept alive on life support anyway.
Two things happened the next day; one, the doctor advised us that there was no brain activity and that she was taking him off life support and, two, and far more important to me, was that the coroner had ruled that my Dad had “dry drowned”. I had never heard this term before, but she explained that what had happened was that my Dad had an asthma attack in the water and his throat had closed within seconds of the attack. This is why I could not get any water out of him because he had none to give. That lifted the huge anvil off my shoulders as she said there was nothing I could have done to save him anyway. Even though the paramedics had praised my efforts, there was a tiny lingering doubt in my mind that I had still done something wrong, so it was a great relief to know I hadn’t.
Thus began the arduous chore of planning his funeral and making all the arrangements, most importantly deciding how we were going to care for Mum. There was really no question that her care would fall to me, but I was totally shocked when making all the arrangements for his funeral also fell exclusively to me. My family didn’t lift a finger, not even to speak at his funeral. I knew that Dad was not the type to have a somber, sad, formal funeral in a church, so, seeing as how everything was up to me anyway, I planned a wake instead, in celebration of his life.
It was a hectic few days for me and I was so thankful that my friends rallied around to help. My friend, Bianca, jumped on a plane from Alberta the minute she heard about Dad, and she was so helpful. I could not have done it without her. With my friend Laura they made a wonderful collage of pictures of my parents, centered around my favorite picture of them sitting on the dock nude from behind.
My parents had also made a video of them in a talent show down in Arizona where they spent every winter. Dad was dressed up as a real floozy, with big boobs and it was so funny to watch him following my mother’s every step. We had probably watched that video at least a hundred times when they had visitors, which was often. I figured showing it was the perfect send off for my Dad and he would understand why. I was a bit nervous about how all his friends in the park were going to accept this fun funeral, but I meant it as a tribute to Dad and couldn’t worry about anyone else’s opinion.
Part of my duties, especially when my brother and sister refused to even speak, was the eulogy, which I had no clue about. I sat down in a quiet time and wrote it from start to finish without a single change. It kind of just all came to me. It included my favorite story about my Dad.
As usual, all my friends were over at Mum ad Dad’s. We had our three boats and were skiing and boarding off the beach. Dad had been having fun with everyone and, of course, drinking and not eating. At one point he hollered out to Wade to take him skiing. My sister was standing on the porch telling me not to even think of taking him out, but when Dad wanted to do something there was no stopping him. Wade looked at me and said he would just take him for a short loop. Dad came down to the water carrying his skis and as he got into the water to put his skis on did a face plant right down in the water. As he came up spitting and coughing, he said “maybe later”.
Without a doubt my fondest memories of Dad are dirt-biking. It had started way back when I was coming out for a visit and he had bought me a used Honda dirt-bike. Although I had ridden a street bike way back when I was sixteen, I had never been off-road before. He took me up in the hills to teach me, and, well, I took to it like the proverbial fish to water. Soon he was yelling at me that I was getting cocky and was going to fall, but I didn’t. During the three months or so I was there we biked at every opportunity. Mum would make us a lunch and we would strap a cooler on the bike with a six pack of beer. We would find some secluded lake somewhere and stop and have our lunch and our exploding beers.
When I finally moved out in 1993 Dad had bought a Honda 185 from a friend of ours and I bought an identical one from him. We went biking every chance we could, around Westbank, Peachland, Summerland, Kelowna and up in Revelstoke. We saw more awesome country on those bikes and rarely spent more than a couple of bucks on gas. Back in 1989 my son and I had traveled cross country in less than two days to go biking for a week. I still remember my son, sitting on his bike, having a beer beside a rushing river, saying it doesn’t get better than this. He was so right.
I could write a book on all the adventures Dad and I had on our bikes. One time, when I thought I was getting pretty good, I challenged him to a race up Blue Grouse Mountain outside of Kelowna. I figured I would be resting with a beer at the top of the mountain, waiting for him to come along. As I rounded the last corner and headed up the steepest part of the trail, some forty minutes from where we started, I happened to look back and there he was on my tail. So much for my arrogance.
Another time we were all sitting up a mountain in Revelstoke in front of what looked like a swamp, all trying to decide if we would brave it. As we sat there debating along comes Dad and plows right through it without a moment’s hesitation. Talk about intimidating! We had no choice but to go ourselves now.
On one ride with my son there Dad drove right cross a swiftly flowing, and deep river. I went after him, bouncing on all the rocks on the bottom, but I knew I had to keep full throttle or the bike would die in the water. We shouted our encouragement to Chris and just told him to “give er”. He got half way across and let off on the throttle and there he sat, stranded in the middle of the river. We couldn’t stop laughing, but we now had to brave the very cold water to drag his bike out and dry it off.
My father was definitely “old school”. His father had beat him mercilessly and Dad was never that bad, but he was a very strong disciplinarian. He believed in the strap and we got it when we deserved it. His favorite line when, for example, I would come in late, was “how many times do I have to tell you?” One time I made the fatal mistake of not realizing this was what they call a rhetorical question and I answered him. Boy, did I pay for that one! Dad was tough, as he thought was expected of him, and he never once said he loved us, as that would be a sign of weakness to him. The only time I had ever seen him cry was when his buddy at work had died in front of him and Dad couldn’t save him. All that changed after he had a nervous breakdown which changed him forever.
The next time we saw him cry was when the doctor phoned to tell him they had caught my mother’s cancer in time and she would be okay. He cried like a baby, just out of sheer emotion, but it shocked all of us at the time. For the next few years he did his very best to patch things up in the family, particularly between my brother and me. He never accepted what a scumbag my brother was or how many people he had hurt, including me. My biggest regret is that shortly before my father’s death we had a huge three hour argument over why I could not forgive my brother or be as “successful” as he was. I had no choice but to defend myself and tell them a whole lot of thing about my brother that they had not known, but the anger came when they refused to believe me. Regardless of how right I know I was, it still hurts that this is one of my last memories of my father.
Well, Dad, wherever you are today, I hope you are still riding your bike. I can only hope to join you there one day, I hope not too soon.
Love you forever, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.