By Shannon Kanda, Engagement and Intake Coordinator, Counselling Services, Catholic Family Service
The tenth anniversary of my dad’s death was a few months ago. The weight of that occasion was unexpected and there were some uncomfortable and awkward feelings that went with figuring out what I wanted to do with it.
Wonderfully, one of the things my dad helped me to learn is that awkward is okay.
My dad was a goofball, an athlete, a couch-potato, a tinkerer, a half decent carpenter, a lover of compost, a cautious spender and a saver of doodads. He made adventures happen for us – building fires, skating rinks and parties in the back yard; climbing cliffs, waterfalls and trees; watching ants, catching snakes, swimming in lakes and rivers, and snowmobiling. He took us to the stables every day when we got into riding horses and even joined several committees to help out.
He was less enthusiastic about getting me to ballet lessons, helping us with homework, or teaching us how to cook. He was a single dad and he wasn’t great at everything, but there are some things he did really well.
I should clarify that my mom was definitely a part of our lives, but my dad had custody of my older sister Stacey and me from the time I was three. Although my relationship with my mom has matured into an ongoing and adult one, when I was growing up my dad was our primary caregiver.
When I think about what kind of a person and parent my dad was, the first thing I think about is adventuring. Something I’m reflecting on today, though, is how he treated my mom in the midst of the awkwardness of divorce.
He never said anything negative about my mother, ever. When my sister and I started to ask questions, all he would say was, “That’s between your mom and me, and all you need to know is that we both love you very much.”
I do wish he had shared something more about it, at least when we got older. But what I so appreciate about his tight-lipped approach was that he saw this as an act of respect towards my mom, and that helped me to respect her too. He set a boundary around their relationship that conveyed to me that moms and dads are important to one other even if they’re not a big part of each other’s lives.
As a matter of fact, the first time I can recall really seeing my mom and dad in the same room together was my sister’s high school graduation dinner. This had awkward written all over it! At 15 years old, I wasn’t sure the universe could sustain such an encounter. Then it happened, and the fact that they treated each other not just decently but well was far more interesting to me than any of the other pomp or drama of that celebration. My dad extended all of the social graces that he had to my mother. He pulled out her chair, offered to get her a drink, made a point of including her in the conversation. All the acts that say, “She is one of us, naturally.” This was monumental for me. He was again showing his respect, her importance, and that “awkward is okay.”
My mom and dad never preferred to socialize together even after that, but it was the first of many times we were together as a family at important moments, treating each other well. The last time this happened was at his deathbed.
I’ll be honest. I wasn’t completely open to having anyone there with my dad aside from my sister and me. We alone had shared the bond of being his constant companions in the ICU for five weeks. We were there when he woke up from a coma not knowing where he was, when the morphine and lack of windows caused him to become paranoid and delusional. We had prayed over him. We had managed visitors. We were there for the moment when a team of doctors told him there was no more they could do – for the moment when my dad, with complete lucidity, agreed to end his own life support.
It’s no small thing when the biggest person in your life chooses to die, even if it’s the right choice.
For two more weeks, Stacey and I were with him while he planned his end, tied up some of the loose threads of life, and said good-bye to important people – including my mom. In those last weeks after his decision, a real peace settled over his hospital room. The paranoia disappeared of its own accord and they were some of the happiest weeks he’d had in years.
We had kept my mom up-to-date on what was happening and we alerted her when we knew the end was imminent. But to make room for someone else besides my sister in those final, sacred moments? That was tough. Tough and awkward and good. Looking back, I am so glad my mom was there at the end. I know it was important to her and, although my dad wasn’t responsive any more in those last minutes, I believe he would say he was glad as well.
A lot of important relationships and life moments are awkward, uncomfortable, uneasy or tricky. I am so blessed that my suave, goof-ball, handy (sometimes embarrassing, insensitive or frustrating) dad never gave up on doing his best in what must have been a tricky relationship for him – the one with my mom. I gained a lot from that.
Thank you Dad.