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The Globe and Mail

It's too late to fix my relationship with my father

kate o'connor The Globe and Mail

Funerals have often reminded me of spring cleaning for the soul. Most of the funerals I've been to have involved the same rituals of polishing the shine on the person's most winning attributes, sweeping the cobwebs of unfinished business under the rug and trying to leave a well-manicured life to cherish and remember.

I have appreciated these traditions, participated in them and understood their sanctity. When my grandfather died last year, my family spent many hours remembering his more than 90 years of life. We understandably focused on the 85 of those years he lived without dementia, able to remember the details of every dinner he'd eaten since 1940.

Yet since my own father died suddenly of a heart attack last October at 54, my attempts to clean up the mess he left, in the ways that had worked so well before, have failed me.

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My father's family and friends went through the same rituals of smoothing over the cracks in his life at the funeral. We joked about his lack of dress sense, about his love for gadgets and his inability to hold a hammer the right way up. His compassion and community-building as a family physician in small towns in Saskatchewan and Alberta figured prominently in people's tributes.

All these months later, however, I still look at his life and see so many rough edges.

My father died at a particularly tumultuous time in his life. He was massively in debt. He had picked fights with his friends and family. He'd stopped doing many of the things he had long loved, including golfing, learning about art and art history, studying languages and collecting antiques. A man who once pored over websites, searching for signatures of obscure British historical figures, had lost track of his prized document collection.

I am angry at him - angry that he died, angry that he isn't here to have these fights with me, angry that he isn't here for me to tell him that the fights aren't worth it.

If he had continued to live, this would have been deemed his midlife crisis, but he didn't. He died right in the thick of it; right in the thick of a painfully rickety relationship with me, his only daughter and youngest of his two children. I am left unsure how to proceed.

Although we'd had our ups and downs, our relationship was particularly rocky in the two years before his death. I wanted him to be more interested in my life but to respect me as an adult with my own life in Toronto, while he felt I was too critical of him as a father and wanted me to spend more time in Alberta as part of his life there.

I watch my family groan under the weight of the shock and horror at his death. Some members prefer simply to remember my father's life bereft of his last few years. They talk about "the real" him. Others struggle, like me, to reconcile the many faces and facets of a man whose life ended without warning.

Some mornings I wake up laughing, remembering my father's uncanny ability to take full advantage of every opportunity to get involved. As an immigrant to small-town Alberta in 1989, he took on Canadian life wholeheartedly, joining the local curling team. He proudly displayed his first-place trophy in every house we owned. Only the lucky few visitors, however, would hear that in truth my father was called away to a medical emergency at the moment of the big tournament game. Though he won that trophy in an ambulance on the way to Regina, his pride in its accomplishment was undiminished.

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But I am also awake well into the night, rehashing our last few arguments. I feel like I'm arguing with a black hole - his death seizes my rage and tears and frustration, and spits nothing back. I am angry at him - angry that he died, angry that he isn't here to have these fights with me, angry that he isn't here for me to tell him that the fights aren't worth it.

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In our society, death is supposed to bring closure and insight and peace. It is impolite to say you have mixed feelings about the dead, to say you are still mad, you are still hurt. But not everyone dies a good or expected death. Not everyone's affairs are in order. Sometimes, they just die.

I am struggling to grieve not only for my father - the loving, gentle and caring man who made me who I am - but also for all the things no amount of scrubbing will remove. I grieve for the better relationship we will never have, for the closure I will have to find myself. While I can and am learning to forgive, I will never hear the words "I forgive you."

A few months is the blink of an eye in the trajectory of grief for a parent. The years of sorting and processing my complicated relationship with my father stretch before me. I am exhausted by that thought, and yet hopeful that one day in the future I will wake up with the sense of peace I have so long associated with death.

In the meantime, I have decided to start the process of my own spring cleaning. I have been letting the memories, both good and bad, wash over me. I try to remember my father as a real person, not as a pleasant caricature of his complicated self. I am pulling all my memories from under the rug and airing them out a bit before I pack them up, put them away and move on from this season of mourning.

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Daniella Moss lives in Toronto.

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