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Illustration by Jeremy Leung

Mark Sakamoto is the author of Forgiveness, which won CBC’s Canada Reads.

Nearing the end of his life, the American poet Hayden Carruth left us a wondrous breadcrumb when he penned, in his poem Testament, that “Now/ I am almost entirely love.”

I remember reading those six words, strung together like a dare. They seemed a million miles away. A foreign country. A Martian land.

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What would it feel like to be almost entirely love? How could I possibly reach that destination with all that life demanded? It seemed a fool’s errand.

I became obsessed with this task, but for the longest time, I failed miserably. I was so very far away from almost entirely love. I was so very far away from my mom. I would go months without thinking of her. I wish I were taking creative licence, but this is a statement of fact. It is so very clear to me now, but her absence created an emotional vacuum within me.

When my mother was 51 years old, she drank herself to death in a windowless, derelict basement apartment in Medicine Hat, Alta. I would do anything to be able to delete that sentence from reality. Sixteen years on, I can still hardly write it. I hate that sentence so much. I hate what it did to my family. I hate what it did to me.

Losing my mother the way I did left me with an open wound. It is always on me. You forget it, or try to ignore it, for a time, but then you sip a cup of Scottish Breakfast tea with a dash of full cream and it stings. You walk by a record store and catch a bar or two of Brothers in Arms and you break down right there on the corner. The pain is so bad, you pack everything away. All the light, too. And therein lies the heartache: You lose all the light. And my mother had so much light. Not really a maternal, soft light; more like a match being struck. In my hometown, she was known as the champion of the underdog, and this was a town full of underdogs. She knew and loved them all. And they her.

When Diane MacLean was healthy, she was almost entirely love. Although it was a tough love. It was a love that demanded her two sons be the best that they could be. She was part mommy, part drill sergeant. When her illness invaded, it must have been an overwhelming assault to defeat her mighty heart. I have never known why she was unable to offer herself the same light, the same tough love, that she so freely gave those around her. To a person, those around her basked in it.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but after my mom died, I packed her memories up and stashed them away with the few remaining items in her possession. I had no empathy for her plight. I felt as though I used it all up after those years of neglect. Thinking of the happy always invited an onslaught of the hurt. And I was so damned tired of hurting. Once the funeral was over, I left her without saying goodbye. I don’t think it even dawned on me to look back.

Without a mother’s watchful gaze, it is hard to gauge how you’re doing. You have to watch yourself. That can be tricky. You lie to yourself. You cheat. You let yourself off the hook. You turn a blind eye from the feelings you wish you didn’t have. You ignore the words you should not have uttered. You bury the pain you feel. It is so difficult to unearth all that. But, you can’t get anywhere in the dark.

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The first cracks of light were offered to me at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the west end of Toronto. My wife, Jade, just gave birth to our first daughter, Miya Mitsue Sakamoto.

Miya was breach, so Jade opted for a scheduled cesarean delivery. Once it was over, the room quickly emptied. Jade was wheeled off to post-op by the nurses while the surgeons scrubbed out, leaving me with my swaddled newborn and my open wound. I was crying, but they weren’t tears of joy. I was, in large part, sad. Sad that my mother was not there to witness, and hold, and love, this newborn child. God, she would have loved her. Miya would have been my mother’s whole world. I know that fact fully. I torture myself wondering if it might have been enough to save her if she could only have held on long enough.

Through my tears in that operating room, I had one singular thought: For the next short while, my heart is this little girl’s emotional home.

It clearly needed some cleaning out.

In that empty operating room, I came to understand that nothing in my daughter’s life would impact her more than the quality of her father’s love. I had never before felt such certainty. I had never before felt such weight. That realization anchored and directed me.

I needed to be almost entirely love. For her.

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So I sat with my grief. I meditated on it and in it. Like a bathtub filled with scalding water, it was terribly uncomfortable. It hurt. It made me sweat. So many times, I wanted to get out. But, slowly, slowly, the bath cooled. It began to feel good. I had never thought about working on love. I always thought of it like a bolt of lightning. A force unto itself. Thinking of love as a practice utterly changed my life. I think it changed the trajectory of Miya’s, too.

I wish you could meet her. She is such a light. Miya is the kind of kid who, at bedtime, says “I love my family” just in case anything should happen while she’s asleep. At eight years of age, Miya is already almost entirely love. I hope someday I can catch up to her.

It turns out, I needed that little being more than I ever could have imagined. Her love taught me that there is only here and now. Becoming a father taught me how to love my mom again. It took me on a journey that led me to remembering and honouring my mother for all that she was.

Opening myself up to my mom again – letting her back in to my life after so many vacant years – allowed her into Miya’s journey as well. Miya will grow up knowing that the only thing that alcoholism could not rob her grandmother of was the love and devotion she had for her two sons. She will grow up knowing that her Grandma Diane was a community activist, someone who left her town better off for her being there. Miya will know that she, too, could do the same.

As it turns out, I needed to become a father to remember how to be a son. What a strange twist in life. And I am grateful that on this Father’s Day, I know in my heart I am slowly inching closer toward being almost entirely love.

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