Skip to main content

Linden MacIntyre’s most recent book is The Winter Wives, a novel.

My father died almost 55 years ago. It was March 11, 1969. I know this because I asked my sister to remind me. She has a rare archival memory, but I suspect the real reason she always has this information at her fingertips is that, years later, it became the birthdate of her first grandchild.

I remember almost everything else about the day, where I was, what I was doing when I got the news. I have almost photographic clarity about the moment my friend, the priest, standing in the doorway of my office, told me. He had knocked, which I found in retrospect to have been odd. He was holding the door half-open and asked me to step out into the hallway.

What was more unusual was that he was wearing his work clothes. Black suit. Roman collar. At first, I thought: There must be something special going on for him to dress like that. By 1969 the priests usually tried to dress like everybody else.

It is all so clear now, 55 years later. But what I can never spontaneously recall is the secondary information. The day of the week. Even the month. The date on the calendar. Blank spaces in the memory of an unending day. The primary particulars, however, are unforgettable. I can even hear the conversation.

“Can you come in for a sec?” I asked.

“No, no,” he replied, still holding the door half-open. “Can you come out here? I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

I stepped out. I was pressed for time. I was a reporter, on a deadline. It was Ottawa. It was late afternoon. I remember the clatter of typewriters in the offices around us.

“What is it?”

“It’s your father.”

“What about him?”

My father was 50 years old. I knew they were 50 hard years, years of undeclared illnesses and tolerated injuries; heavy economic stress; gruelling work in hard-rock mines. I knew all this because it explained long absences. It would never have occurred to me that there would be an absence that would be permanent. I hadn’t reached that time in life when we become aware of our parents’ unavoidable mortality.

Looking back, because of how he lived and worked, I probably didn’t know him very well at all. But it wasn’t something that troubled me before that moment because I knew that there were no insurmountable barriers blocking a conventional relationship. I assumed, as we sometimes do when we’re quite young, that we had lots of time ahead of us to fill in blanks, to get to really know a mother, father, sibling, child. I suspect he felt the same.

I was wrong.

“Your father died,” the priest said.

And I also remember the instant physical and mental numbness. And how it spread from the top of my head, down my spine, and turned my feet to lead. And how, over the course of the next few hours, the numbness dissolved into a cluster of unsettling sensations, the grief that would, in time, obscure the less important information. What day of the week it was. What date. What I had for lunch. The story I was trying to write on deadline. Now there was but one story and one deadline and I had missed them both. I could not have cared less how the day was named or numbered.

We move on after such events, accommodating the incalculable weight of detail that can never be forgotten. We learn to live with sorrow, but we don’t forget it even when we want to. We can always find the date if we need to know it. Look it up. Ask your sister. The greater challenge is to learn survival from the deeply personal particulars that make or break us on such a day. It never occurred to me that the failure to remember one small detail of an excruciating moment could become a measure of my mental, physical or emotional corruption.

This year it felt awkward when I had to call my sister once again to ask her to remind me of the date our father died. It felt awkward because I was painfully aware of the debate about U.S. President Joe Biden’s memory and how, in a stressful moment, he had a hard time remembering the date on which his eldest son had died. And how strangers wanted to conclude this lapse was somehow evidence of diminished competence.

There was a lot happening on Oct. 8, the day Joe Biden was supposed to glibly answer an unexpected question. He’d just been on the phone with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. I’m sure it would have been an exhausting conversation for anyone. Shortly afterward, he seemed to stumble on a question that he might have thought was only marginally relevant, and the stumble seemed to indicate dysfunction of some disqualifying gravity.

Reading details of the report by the special counsel on how he handled sensitive documents, and how he seemed uncertain about the date on which his son died, I was reminded: We are approaching another anniversary of your father’s death. And you don’t even know the date. What does this reveal?

Actually, nothing.

I’ve learned through experience that the small things we forget are often what we didn’t need to know in the first place. We don’t forget the large reality of loss, the continuity of absence.

I’d like to have heard Joe Biden’s answer to the more important question: What do you most vividly remember? I know he’d have an interesting answer. There are days we don’t forget for as long as we’re alive, even when we can’t recall a date that doesn’t matter.

Interact with The Globe