A toast with Dad, by Catherine Mulroney

By Catherine Mulroney, Globe and Mail Thursday, Oct. 01, 2009

After my mother died six years ago, my father clung valiantly to his rituals and routines, determined to demonstrate he was coping and able to fend for himself.

A favourite tradition remained Sunday dinner at our place. After saying his hellos, he would loosen his tie and hand over his suit jacket for me to hang up.

Then my son Luke would ask, “Would you like a beer, Grandpa?” to which my father would respond, “I wouldn’t say no” or “A little something to wet my whistle” or “You could twist my arm,” all designed to make me groan and my kids laugh.

When Luke would return from the kitchen, beer in hand, Dad would solemnly repeat his promise that, when Luke came of age, the two of them would have a beer together.

Slowly, I began to recognize that the repetition of stories and expressions was masking the onset of dementia – likely Alzheimer’s disease – and that Dad was holding fast to what he knew best simply to get by. It was as if by offering up stock phrases and jokes, we could all overlook the missed appointments, the mixed-up names and dates, the fact he could no longer rely on his once-unerring sense of direction to keep him from getting lost even in the most familiar of places.

In time, Dad’s recitation of the pledge became bittersweet for Luke, his youthful anticipation of a milestone replaced by a mature concern for his grandfather. Luke would nod to Dad in agreement and then catch my eye and smile sadly.

By the time my father moved into a nursing home he had long since forgotten the shared promise.

Luke, however, had not. As each birthday brought him closer to 19, he would revisit the idea. At first, it was a sad memory. But by the time he celebrated his latest birthday, in January, my freshly minted age-of-majority cardholder told me with the enviable certainty of youth that he was going to make the date happen.

There was enough determination in his voice that I cautioned him not to do anything rash, nothing that would lose us the spot we had fought so hard to win in a decent extended-care home. He would simply smile in response.

As the winter turned to spring, Dad’s health continued to decline, a range of new troubles further complicating his already precarious condition.

With his birthday looming in July, I was at a loss as to how to mark the occasion. Dad was always a big believer in celebrations, but his illness meant that finding ways to celebrate was becoming increasingly difficult. The political biographies he had once devoured as gifts were long since out of the question. Even a birthday cake was impossible, as trouble swallowing meant he was on a diet of pureed foods and thickened liquids.

But then the beer pledge came back to me. Sheepishly, I presented the idea to the nursing-home staff. When the head nurse called to say the doctor had signed off on the idea, she noted gently that my father’s condition had reached the point where the potential for creating a pleasant moment, or for triggering a memory in him while creating one for my son, outweighed any possible downside.

And so, on his birthday my kids and I headed down to the nursing home, a solitary beer – a Labatt Blue, Dad’s favourite – tucked away in my purse. My father was never a fan of lukewarm beer, but I figured he’d let that go, just this once.

Presenting myself at the nursing station, I poured an inch into a glass to be thickened. We then wheeled Dad over to a corner of the living room and pulled our chairs in close. Luke took hold of the bottle, tipped the neck to the glass and said, “Cheers, Grandpa.” Then he lifted a spoonful to my father’s lips and waited.

Dad’s grin was feeble but undeniable. Perhaps it wasn’t Proust’s madeleine, but I would like to think the taste triggered something deep within him. And when Luke saw his grandfather’s smile, he beamed in triumph.

The promised rite of passage played out in a way none of us could have envisioned or expected. It had never been about the beer, though, but about a moment together. And when my father could no longer make that moment happen, my son ensured it would.

As Luke spooned the rest of the beer to his grandfather, he chatted about school and places he’d gone and people he’d met, just as he’d done pretty much every Sunday for the past 19 years.

I was taken back to earlier summer days, to Sunday dinners at my parents’ house, with Luke running through the sprinkler and my dad at the barbeque, watching and smiling. And for a moment, all was right with the world.

My father’s 83rd birthday is one of the happiest memories I have of him, and one of the last. Dad died five weeks later.

For me, the years of his illness were filled with pain and frustration, anger and grief. My father, of course, was oblivious to that. Luke, in turn, chose to see past the issues that troubled me, preserving his image of his grandfather as family elder, a beloved relation.

In one afternoon, the two of them managed to remind me, perhaps for the first time since Dad became ill, that even in times of great sorrow and loss, there can still be moments of joy.

It was a promise well worth keeping.

))Catherine Mulroney lives in Toronto.
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Father’s Day without Dad
Corey James Allen
Jun. 17, 2010

Sunday will be just another day for me. No frantic last-minute trip to the mall for a cheesy card. No elation at hunting down that new toolbox he wanted.

It’s just me and painful memories. I am a scared 12-year-old kid all over again. Wanting, wishing and waiting that Father’s Day passes quickly.

Ever since I lost my dad 10 years ago, I have been trying to fill a hole. A hole in my heart so big I don’t think it will ever close up. This void in my life haunts me.

My father died unexpectedly and suddenly at the age of 42. A steel-factory worker for all of his life, he suffered a brain aneurysm while on the job.

I remember sitting in the same room for days, feeling suffocated by the hospital’s sickly, off-white walls. We waited to hear the good news. My 12-year-old self just kept thinking, “Everything’s going to be fine. He’s going to pull through and this will all be over.”

I had pushed the idea of my father dying so far back in my mind that when it finally happened, I was crushed. Wrapped in my aunt’s arms, my body tried its best to reject the onslaught of emotion. Tears flowed. Snot ran down my nose. I couldn’t breathe.

“I felt so helpless not to be able to shield you from the pain that I knew was coming those days he was in the hospital. I wish I could have done more,” my aunt wrote in an e-mail to me on the anniversary of my father’s death several years ago.

It was at that moment in the hospital the hole inside me began to burst open. While other 12-year-olds worry about pimples or middle-school feuds, I was struggling to deal with my father’s death.

Ever since, I have felt the most raw and exposed on Father’s Day and on the anniversary of the day he died, Feb. 15. It’s like a wild hunger. No amount of time could ever fully heal the pain. Father’s Day, in particular, will always make that hole inside me feel deeper because my loss becomes a lot more obvious. While everyone else is gathering to show their love for their dad, I am in mourning.

I miss the little things about him: the way he’d rub his hands together; driving together in our baby-blue Thunderbird; making snow forts with him; seeing him get mad at my sister and me for throwing stuff around the house.

I miss hearing his voice, which is now a fleeting memory I try desperately to recall. I miss a father’s love for his son. No one will ever love me like that again.

My father was a family man who, along with my mother, tried their hardest to turn our modest, semi-detached house into a home. It could never have looked like a dream home, but the happiest moments of my life remain inside those walls. It is a place I can still run back to when I can no longer handle the stress of school or living by myself in Toronto.

Growing up, I used to have so many sleepless nights and panic attacks about us not having enough money to scrape by or my mother dying and being left completely parentless. This was something I had never thought about until my father died.

I am jealous of my older brother and sister, who have more memories of him than I do. My brother was 17 and my sister was 15 when he died. But I know the pain cuts just as deep for them as it does for me, perhaps even more.

“My happiness is filled with sadness without you to share it with,” reads a yearly memorial my mother puts in the local paper. My university graduation earlier this month marked one of the many special occasions where I felt this way too.

When I am confronted with those moments in life that family comes together to celebrate, like graduations or my sister’s wedding a few years ago, it hurts to know that my father is not there. That realization hits me hard. It stings.

So when Father’s Day arrives every year, it’s me versus melancholy. My dad’s death is, and will always be, the defining moment of my life. There are no words I could say, amount of tears I could cry or wishes I could make that will ever bring him back. I hope he thinks I turned out okay, despite his absence.

If there’s one thing I have taken from my loss, it’s that you can find strength in vulnerability. His death has made me more resilient. I am motivated to be an achiever at everything I do so something beautiful and positive can come out of my darkest and most painful experience. I don’t want his death to mean nothing.

Most of my life will be lived without my father in it, a fact I still have a hard time accepting. But I’m getting there. Slowly. As someone who lost a parent as a child, I am part of a club that no one wants to belong to. Unfortunately, there are no perks in being a member.

So I wait. I wait for this day to pass and I wait for a day when I can look back on my life and be at peace with my dad’s death. That day may never come, but I’ll keep waiting.

Dad, I miss you beyond all measure.

Happy Father’s Day.

Corey James Allen lives in Toronto.

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