It was the first week of December. A Wednesday. My grade nine gym class had been doing a bunch of really cool stuff that week, like climbing a little rock wall the school had set up, rappelling down another wall via a rope, and learning the proper procedure for zip-lining—something we were set to finally do on Friday. I was super excited. As someone who hated both school (I had a lot of anxiety about social interaction), and physical activity (I preferred reading, and wasn’t at all interested in chasing after a ball for a grade), that was saying something.
I’d recently read the first two Twilight books, and had discovered that people wrote their own stories with the characters. Since the third book wasn’t out yet, I’d been avidly reading these stories after school, going straight to the computer and sitting there until bed, leaving only for dinner.
That night, we had stir fry, one of the few things my dad could make without slightly burning it. As a kid, I was afraid of trying any new food, so I’d opted for the chicken and rice by themselves. I remember talking about my gym class, how excited I was for the zip-lining. But, as it was just a normal dinner, I wasn’t paying much attention to anything else. I went straight back to the computer afterwards.
My father played hockey every Monday and Wednesday night. So, after dinner, he got ready to leave. My mother and my sister were still in the kitchen, so they got to say goodbye. As they usually did, my parents even said "I love you." Me, I completely ignored him as he passed by me, barely nodding as he said goodbye. After all, he’d be back later. It was just one night, and the story I was reading was so good.
My mother got the phone call around 8:30 pm. She’d just gotten back from picking my sister up from her dance class, which was across the street from the hockey arena. She had been getting ready for bed; pajamas on, face washed, robe secure. When the call came, things went by quickly. My mother grabbed her purse, dropped us off with the next-door neighbours, and went to the arena. She even ran a red.
My father had always been a bit of a klutz. He’d had accidents before; he’d gotten his arm stuck in a conveyor belt at his first job, had fallen off the roof of our cottage, had slammed his thumb nail with a hammer. Hearing a call that he’d gotten hurt wasn’t that surprising. For all we knew, he’d broken his leg playing hockey, or gotten a puck to the face.
When 10 pm passed, we knew it was more serious than that. My mother had called our neighbours, telling them to bring my sister and me to the hospital. A few of my father’s team mates had driven his car home. No one would tell us what was happening.
It was 10:36 pm when we got to the Queensway Carleton Hospital. My mother came and got us, and we were brought to a private waiting room. Beige walls, green couches, stale crackers, and warm ginger ale. What was surprising though, were the occupants. My father’s mother, father and his new wife were there. That was when it clicked that something had gone wrong. It wasn’t a broken bone. These people rarely entered the same room, yet there they were, comforting each other, and crying.
I don’t entirely remember the doctor coming in, telling us about the blood clot in his heart. What I do remember is going to see him. Seeing the bed, the sheets. The body. I remember nearly knocking over a tray as I walked over. I remember how cold he was, how pale. I remember the noise that came from my throat.
I was fourteen years old. And my father was dead.
Certain events in your life tend to follow you around, like ghosts. Some are so important, so integral to who you’ve become as a person, that they don’t ever quite go away, no matter how much time has passed. For me, that was the passing of my dad.
The next few days were a blur. Of family staying over, of friends bringing by food, of the viewing, and the funeral. My mother was in shock—her best friend had died. So was my sister. We all were.
Of course, we all coped differently. My mother started cleaning up the house—she threw herself into finally organizing and getting rid of everything in the basement. She sold his car. She threw out most of his clothing. She didn’t sleep much. She often woke us up at 5 am with the vacuum cleaner. She bought new furniture, new clothing, a new car. A year later, almost to the day, she discovered a spot on her face—it turned out to be malignant skin cancer. The doctors got rid of it easily. A year after that, she tried dating—and met a man.
Three years after my father’s death, we moved in with Richard and his two children. It didn’t go over so well. Four teenage girls in one house, under circumstances we didn’t want to be in, and we didn’t get along. His children would steal our clothes, our money, purposefully spend too much time in the shared bathroom, bad-mouth our family. They were arrogant, disrespectful, and constantly complained about anything to do with the living situation. Their room wasn’t big enough, they weren’t going to sit with us at dinner, they didn’t feel welcome. They tried to make it sound like their lives were so much harder, as if my sister and I hadn’t gone through something traumatic for young children.
My sister coped by throwing herself into school work. She kept up with her dance classes, went out with friends a lot, studied hard for every test, and got a job the minute she was able to. Her grieving process wasn’t that noticeable, something she’s said she never really did because my mother and I were grieving so much, and she didn’t want to add to that.
Me, I just stopped. I quit my dance class, didn’t hang out with friends unless absolutely necessary. I spent more time reading books and stories online than socializing, retreating into other people’s lives instead of dealing with my own. To me, the guilt over not being able to say goodbye, of completely ignoring him that last night, it killed me. I became depressed, my grades slowly dropped, my friend circle got thinner, and so did I. At one point, I even started cutting myself. In comparison to the rest of my family, I wasn’t coping so well.
When I was sixteen, it got worse. I’d finally agreed to go to a party with some of my friends, and was introduced to my first boyfriend, and alcohol. While both relationships were rocky at best, the latter one stuck around longer. Both negatively affected my relationship with my mother, enough so that at one point we barely spoke. I graduated, barely, and worked a minimum-wage job instead of going to any post-secondary schooling.
But time really does change things. It was been nine years since my father passed away. In that time, my sister and I passed the 20th birthday milestone, and my mother passed her 50th. We grew up. We learned to heal, to be able to deal with our grief by ourselves. We all got closer as the years passed, and now are closer than we’ve been since my father was alive. It’s almost been a decade, and things have gotten better.
After four years of living with Richard and his bratty children, my mother had had enough. Between his oldest constantly throwing fits, his youngest moving out of the house, and the two of them never making an effort to bond, Mum decided to move out. In the February of 2014, we moved into a new house, which dramatically changed all of our relationships. My family became close again. There were no more odd house rules, no strange people to live with. My mother was happy again. Richard still comes to visit, but his children stay far, far away.
Nicole graduated high school with honours, got a huge scholarship for Ottawa U in the field of health sciences, and still kept in touch with many of her friends. With the money from her job, she got a car. She pushed forward, excelled in anything she put her mind to, and decided to get into health care because she wanted to be able to help people avoid what had happened to us. This year, she is graduating magna cum laude from Health Sciences. She wants to be a nurse practitioner, or she would like to eventually work in the OR. She volunteers at the Queensway Carleton every week. She’s hopefully going to either Queen's or the University of Toronto for nursing next year.
As for me, after four years of working and not doing much with my life, I finally got into a good, stable relationship. With my boyfriend’s help, I got the urge to finally do something with my life, and enrolled at Algonquin College. While the first program didn’t work out, my second one did, and my grades are the highest they’ve ever been. That relationship helped me get over a lot of the guilt, the resentment, and the total loss of hope I had been clinging to for years. My depression slowly eased, my anxiety lessened, my life got better. Even though it didn’t last, and he left to pursue the army, that relationship changed my life for the better, and is something I will always be grateful for.
Everyone’s grieving process is different. My mother coped by redecorating everything; the house, her wardrobe, our lives. My sister didn’t fully grieve, and threw herself into school, into success. I found solace in other people—be they fictional, or whoever I was dating at the time—and whatever liquor I could get my hands on. When something so life-altering happens, you don’t know how you’ll react. It feels like you can’t survive it. But one day, you realize how much time has passed, and how, slowly, you have gotten better.
The fact that it has been nine years still astounds me. A day never goes by that we don’t think, mention, or share some story about my father. During any family get together, someone always brings him up. My father lived to help people. Be it something small, like picking up a forgotten side dish for Thanksgiving dinner, to something bigger, like helping my grandpa build his cottage. He stayed home with my sister and me if we were sick; he always volunteered as a chaperone for our school field trips; he’d go out of his way to make sure his employees were satisfied with their jobs; he built a cottage so he and my mother could retire in the country—something he never lived to see finished.
The thing about loss is that it inevitably brings people closer together. Once the grieving process has settled down, you’re left with these people who stood by you, who helped in any way they could, who stayed. We may have lost a father, a husband, a son, a friend, but we gained a unique newfound closeness. There’s nothing like mortality to bring people closer together.
No matter how we initially coped, I know that now, nine years later, my father would be proud of us. Of my mother, who learned how to stand on her own. Of my sister, who is going to make a difference in other people’s lives. Of me, since I finally started living again.