"My dad died yesterday … and I'm grateful I'm sober."
The room took a collective breath, a sympathetic moment of silence, and I was reminded why recovery meetings are so important to me. In this crowded room in a community centre I felt safe and loved.
A solid woman whom I wouldn't have wanted to fight in my drinking days began to speak in a slow, deep voice, patient with wisdom. I knew there would be a message for me in what she said. "Today I'm going to pick up my cat's ashes, and I tell ya, it's hard."
Hard? My dad just kicked it and you think talking about your cat's remains is appropriate? I was indignant. It was the best emotion I could muster, the effect of a drinking career in which I castrated myself emotionally, leaving a limited landscape of euphoria, frustration and fear.
My father died just before Christmas, 2007. Even now I don't have the words to express who and what he was to me. I'm still finding out. I'm in a constant game of catch-up: a 36-year-old woman with the emotional breadth of a 14-year-old girl.
Like any drunk worth her salt, when life kicked into my carefully constructed reality, I kicked right back with old behaviours. Not double vodka martinis, just a habit of wanting to script everything going on around me.
It used to be that when things didn't work out as I expected or needed them to, I caused a lot of destruction in my immediate vicinity. I authored my own misery, and by default that of those around me. I don't go to those extremes any more - it helps not having had a drink in five years.
When I returned to the family home in Ottawa for my father's funeral, my mother ushered me into the house. My sister was there too, while our four siblings had already gone back to their homes for the night. Grief had pushed my mother into a manic state, instructions tumbling out in no particular order. Somehow I managed to catch that I was supposed to be at the funeral home for 2 p.m.
That night as I lay in bed, I heard sobs escaping from my sister in the bedroom next to mine, her pain voiced in inarticulate sounds foreign to me in their authenticity and vulnerability.
The next morning I walked with my sister into the funeral home. She held my arm and as we kicked snow from our boots, she called out, "Dad, we're heeeere." It was an echo from childhood, of coming in from the cold to hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows.
As guests arrived for the wake I greeted them awkwardly. I became focused on the casket. People were paying their respects to my father and all I could do was stupidly stroke the grain of the wood and rub the brass handles. "It's a beautiful casket, isn't it?"
It wasn't until we were at the church that something changed. I had evidence. I could see it was just the six of us now, fatherless. And finally there were tears from a deep spot inside me I thought I had cauterized with my years of drinking.
We buried him on Christmas Eve morning and it was cold and final and terrible. Standing as one among his many children there was no space for my usual self-absorption. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, the loss of him became real and complete. No searching, no analysis, no scripting.
I never grew up when I was around my father. I thought I was protecting him, pretending to be someone he would have approved of, so I lied my face off. My dad was a good man who seemed to love unconditionally. But I was never willing to find out just how unconditional that love might be.
I was a secret keeper. It's part of my disease. I never talked to him about anything that might be objectionable - my university stripping career, the substance abuse, self-harm or occasional in-patient status on psychiatric wards. I don't think there's anything unique about this. Everybody wants their dad's approval.
The last eight years of his life my father had Alzheimer's, so the window to talk to him about any of this had already begun to close. Some of the things I would have liked to have told him about, like my career in radio, would have made him proud.
He never knew me as a drunk. Not having the guts to face disapproval, to break from my script, I never tried to introduce myself to him. That would have taken adult skills.
And when I sobered up, it didn't dawn on me to talk to him about it as he didn't remember me any more. I wish I had. He wouldn't have had a clue who I was but he would have been delighted for me just the same.
That morning as we put my father into the ground I used my mittens to smother my sobs as I said goodbye to him, goodbye to what had been and what could have been. Although it would have been rocky territory and I thought I was protecting him, maybe there are some choices you have no business or right to make for someone else.
Shannon Quinn lives in Toronto.
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