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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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On the December morning when Dad died unexpectedly, I was thousands of miles away. The rest of my family had been with him in Canada, but I was living in London, England, and didn’t get a phone call until it was over.

Friends tried to comfort me in those early weeks by telling me he was watching over me. “He’ll always be so proud of you,” they said; I would hear from him in subtle ways. I wished I could agree, but really that just sounded like a nice idea for people who believe in that sort of thing. It’s not that I didn’t want a sign from him – a vivid dream or apparition would be welcome – but I knew I wouldn’t get one because I was too much of a realist.

A close friend who’d known my dad for 40 years received several “visits" from him shortly after his death. In that foggy early-morning state between sleep and wakefulness, she saw him sitting next to my mom, brother and me, with his arm around me, but none of us could see him. Only she could, and she wanted to tell me he was right there beside me. I thanked her for sharing and felt a bit jealous, but was resigned to the belief that experiences like that only happen to spiritual people.

Is it still Father’s Day if your dad has just died?

Dad and I were incredibly close. He taught me to appreciate the finer things in life, such as music, literature and good wine. He also taught me to think critically and care deeply about the world. I occasionally asked him about religion, but never really knew where he stood on the matter.

He was supportive when, as a child preparing for my Catholic Confirmation, I dragged the whole family to mass every Sunday. He was equally supportive when my brother and I chose to abandon our religion as teenagers. As long as we lived ethically sound lives, he wasn’t fussed. Once, in university, I asked why he’d sent us to Catholic school. He didn’t skip a beat: “Your mother and I wanted to give you something to rebel against other than us.” I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Yet, when I moved to New York in my 20s, Dad’s parting piece of advice was to find a church to sit in and reflect if ever I felt overwhelmed or homesick. And I did, occasionally – it reminded me of my roots. He and I also started a father-daughter tradition of attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve. We would have repeated that tradition again if not for Dad’s ruptured aneurysm 10 days before Christmas.

My employers gave me time off and I returned home to Saskatoon to help look after paperwork. I planned the celebration of life (we didn’t want to call it a funeral) and wrote the eulogy. I did everything I knew would make Dad proud if he were around. But I only ever felt his presence in fleeting moments, and never in an angel-floating-next-to-me kind of way. It was more like I knew I had internalized so much of his world view and approach to life that he was already a part of me. Still, I would have liked a sign.

The day before the official celebration, we held a private ceremony at my dad’s office. We invited an Indigenous Elder, who Dad had worked with, to hold a smudging ceremony for close friends and colleagues. The Elder kept us captivated for several hours and spoke to my father’s spirit. Grown men sobbed; both my dad’s best friends were sure of his presence. But as much as I appreciated the chance to pay him tribute, I still couldn’t feel anything. Me, who had been closer to him than anyone, or so I liked to believe.

Grief is exhausting, and there is a lot of work to be done when somebody dies, but eventually I began to carve out time for personal reflection. I’d go jogging or walking and take in the winter landscape: the bright sun and hoarfrost on the trees; the mist over the half-frozen South Saskatchewan River that gurgled through the city. I delved into poetry, read books on mindfulness and developed an unexpected interest in art. Near the end of my time home, my mom and I made a trip to Banff, which seemed to open my eyes in a new way. I felt connected. Dad had loved this place. He’d visited countless times, breathed this same mountain air, driven this same highway with the same, stunning views. I was moved, and I dreaded returning to dreary London – to my damp flat and stressful job. I hoped I would be able to hold onto some part of this new peace I’d found – this ability to slow down, appreciate the beauty around me and find solace in things bigger than myself.

All I can remember from my first day back was grey: grey skies, grey buildings, grey exhaust out my window. The return to work was tough and I struggled to cling to those things that had mattered back home and had made me feel close to Dad. I knew he’d always been envious of my cosmopolitan life – the culture at my fingertips. As a birthday gift, sometimes he would send me to a musical or the opera with a friend. So I channelled his memory at the end of my first week and picked up a ticket to the ballet. It was the ethereal Giselle, set in a 19th-century cemetery. There, alone, on an upper balcony of the Royal Opera House, I was reminded of those times I’d sat in solitude in church. I let my tears roll freely as the heroine spun round and round her tombstone, her body already gone, her spirit floating across the stage. I closed my eyes, listened to the music, and could have sworn I felt Dad’s arm around me.

Portia Crowe now lives in Paris.