Category Archives: history

Processing the Posthumous…

Eventually, it seems that something always puts you back to where you need to be. Not long ago, a cousin (another Love) asked me if I had a photo of the Love family house, up in Prince Rupert. I replied that I had taken a couple of snaps of iot back in 1999, when visiting my Dad’s bother. But, no matter where I looked, I could not find it. I hate misplacing anything on the best of days, but this was different: actual photographic evidence of a big piece of my Dad’s childhood, a home I’d been inside to witness myself, in which I could imagine many of my Dad’s childhood stories taking place. If I’d lost that photo, what could I do? I couldn’t very well fly back up to Prince Rupert and just shoot another one.

Could I?

About the Love House

The story my Dad told me (as best I can recall) was that his Dad, Albert Bruce Love, had the lumber for his new house barged in, and each piece of lumber had the name “LOVE” stamped on it. Dad described how he and his younger brother Eric shared teh attic as their bedroom, and would lay there listening to the rain hammer down on the roof. Dad extolled the virtues of deep eaves (not like these modern houses with their shallow eaves that let the rain blow in all the time), and Dad said that if you looked in the attic, you’d see the name “LOVE” stamped on the ceiling.

C. 1928: Eric, Bruce, James, and Charles in front. Aunt Marion (“Molly”) holding baby Patricia in the background.
C. 1928: Bruce, Eric, James, and baby Patricia.
C. 1934: James, Eric, Patricia, and Charles (Behind them, an uncle perhaps?)

If I couldn’t find my 1999 photo of the house, how could I recreate it?

I decided that I could do the next best thing: I could use Google Maps and Street View to take a new photo. This required two things: (1) that I could find the house’s address, and (2) that it was still standing in place. I worried about that the most. The two houses that my Dad’s parents lived in later, down here in Vancouver, were long ago bulldozed and replaced with apartment blocks. I could only hope that Prince Rupert’s urban expansion had stayed relatively quiet over the last 20 years.

It had.

With some emailed descriptions of the location of the house (“on 8th avenue, near such-and-such”, “not far from the school”, etc.), I was able to get to the right section of Eighth Avenue East using Google Street View, and go for a little walk. Before long, my virtual steps had taken to a corner that looked vaguely familiar, and… there it was, I was sure!

The old Love family home, on East Eighth Avenue,in Prince Rupert (circa 2012)

But How Can I be Sure?

Even feeling like I had found the house, I wanted some irrefutable evidence, and finally realized that I could search for the address in other records attached to my Grandfather.

Sure enough, a 1921 census listed this address as that of my Grandpa Love, my Grandmother, and their infant son Albert Bruce. (This tracks with my Uncle Bruce’s story that he was born in the house.) A 1940 voter registration list from Prince Rupert also confirmed the address, so there it was.


Making the most of a ghost…

How do you commune with the dead?

I know this sounds morbid as hell, but the question comes back on me every so often, like a bad aftertaste.

Why bother, and why care? I don’t believe in any afterlife or reincarnation, so why is the need for mental continuity so compelling?

I think for me, especially where my mother Angela is concerned, it’s because she represents the most significant unfinished conversation in my life.

As a kid, I can’t remember more than a dozen words Angela ever really spoke to me. In any memories I have, she didn’t make my lunch, she didn’t play with me, she rarely spoke with me one-to-one, and I cannot remember one clear “I love you” . I believe that she must have loved me, for I can see it in her face in a few photos from my babyhood, but she wasn’t “there” in my life very much. She just wasn’t a presence, parental or otherwise in any meaningful way.

I think this present-yet-absent theme explains the attachment issues I have with women, and why I tend to treasure the women who mother me in their own ways. I’ve had a few woman friends who’ve baked cakes or sweetbreads for my birthday, and it has always touched me very deeply. There’s something about the time and effort taken by a caring person to create a treat that triggers my sweet tooth (not to mention dopamine), and that I may enjoy over multiple sittings. It’s taken me a long time to see these little acts of kindness and friendship in a balanced way, and not let them get blown out of proportion.

All the same, the sweet taste of a treat made just for me helps to eclipse the bitterness left inside my gut. It came from a little boy who didn’t understand that some women are not wired to be nurturing mothers or to be demonstrative or affectionate in general. Such may be the nature of introversion or depression, or a product of how my mother was raised.

So as I’ve gotten older and less subjective, I’ve tried to see my mother Angela in a whole-person kind of view and accept and understand her nature, and not internalize it as any form of personal rejection. It’s a simmering-down of the neediness that peaked in those one or two occasions where I can remember that we had some one-to-one time. Inside me, that little eight-year-old boy needed attention from his mother and needed to know that she saw him and loved him.

Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to depersonalize and detach from someone who sat in such a symbolically significant position, but that’s what happened gradually, as our family broke up and we lived apart and disconnected from each other. It has happened to all of us to some degree, but it was especially so with my Mother. Gradually, from my age of nine to twenty nine, Mum went from being my familiar mother, to being a curiosity and a worry inside our home, to being a lost person whom you no longer knew (and whom you feared no longer knew who you were), and ultimately a stranger you never saw anymore.

If that arc doesn’t describe the downfall of a relationship for all of us (me, my sister, and especially for my Dad), then I don’t know what could.

Although I accept how and who she was, I’ll never know if she ever truly wanted to be a mother, or if it was family pressure that ultimately cast her in that role. I don’t really think she ever became her own person. I think her mind became a kind of depressive hell which she ultimately gave in to. It’s possible that, if her life or choices had been different, she might have found fulfilment in a different relationship or via a deeper connection with her creative artistic and musical impulses.

So I sit here and wonder what I would say to her if we could speak for a moment. I suppose the simplest and most direct thing is “I love you” . The voice is mine, and unfortunately so is her answer.

My True Life web shrine is almost 20 years old!

True Life is almost 20 years old!

I cannot believe that, actually. It has only just hit me that I’ve been adding little bits and pieces to this True Life project since about 1998. Back in 2015, I congratulated myself for importing my 51 original stories into this newly redesigned WordPress blog. (It was a huge improvement over my original hand-rolled php site.) Here’s another page that gives the history and breaks down the major beats of this project, from day one…

I hope to keep adding to this space, adding my stories, images, audio clips, and personal reflections on growing up in different places, with a family that had a lot of internal and external challenges to face.

Today, I think there are closer to 60 stories, and almost 40 blog posts, but there’s still a lot more to say…

On Humanity, broken systems, and free will…

In 2018, we were watching season 1 of Westworld. It posed many questions about human nature and existence and the line between human and machine.

For me, the most memorable themes were:

  • How reliable is our definition of reality?
  • How permananent is our personality?
  • How do advanced AI and life-like automatons alter our definition of a living thing or a sentient being?
  • How do we know that we have free will? How do environment or external forces influence and limit our decisions?
  • What ethical obligations do we have over our offspring or other sentient dependants?
  • Is AI and robotics defining the next race on Earth? (Will humans one day become obsolete?)
  • Is Westworld the future of virtual reality and theme parks?
  • When does a thing start becoming a person, and when does a person start becoming a thing? (Personification, and dehumanization.)

Connecting some themes to my own life

At some point, my own Mother became a “broken system” and difficult to read and to communicate with. By the time I was finishing grade seven, she’d already slipped into a deep depression and given up trying. She gradually almost killed herself from alcoholism. Something deep in her mind and spirit was broken. She wasn’t trying to help herself, and nobody was helping her.

In her youth, Angela was bright and lively in company. She acted in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Victoria, she sang, and she played piano, ukelele and other instruments. She was popular, talented, and well-liked. Who knows if she was actively fighting bipolarism in her youth, but it’s possible. Maybe being happy around others was just another way to fulfill an acting role each day.

Years later in the early 1980s, by the time Angela was in her fifties, she was a patient/resident in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, and whether it was the cumulative effects of Lithium Sulphate, or the after-effects of alcohol overdose-induced brain damage, she was no longer lively at all. She would sit silently, eyes wide, tremoring her arms, and rocking in her chair, her face looking like a mask that was covering mysterious thoughts.

Indeed, Angela’s personality changed after her alcohol overdose. She had suffered brain damage after liver failure and transfusions, and her mannerisms and speech changed noticeably. She became more direct and almost child-like in her declarations. Many of her memories seemed to have been wiped, at least those from the past five to ten years. It was pretty painful for us to realize that we’d really lost her, even while she was sitting there right in front of us. At home, Dad spoke of her in the past tense, because the person he’d known was gone already. Riverview was now maintaining a different version of Angela Huntley Clarke.

As a late teen verging on adulthood, I began to see my mother and my distance from her in a non-personal, non-subjective way. Perhaps this was just a coping mechanism. Angela’s dysfunction began to make me think about the relationship of the mechanics of the body, and how they may or may not be controlled by the brain. I began to understand that some aspects of human behaviour were systemic, and some were conscious and voluntary, and that when the system became damaged, the behaviour became different.

The image below (from a 1984 issue of either Time or OMNI magazine), struck me so strongly at the time as a representation of my lost mother, and my mother’s lost past and personality. The pale mask of a face, and the empty eye sockets, like the missing windows of an abandoned family home.

It helped me process it all to see her as a victim with and of a broken system to depersonalize her a little, to accept the space between us that could not be bridged, and any past connection, which now might need to be reconstructed again. I didn’t have the tools for this job.

As 1984 turned into 1985, I visited Mum whenever I could, and tried to connect with her more as a person (even though I wasn’t convinced that she still remembered me as her son). I introduced myself if I needed to, I tried to converse, I shared drawings and photos with here, and brought her chocolate every time. As the years rolled on, it helped me to think of her more like a helpless child, instead of a broken system. I still called her Mum.

Automatons are not people, even if they are shaped like them. People may appear like broken machines, but they’re still people inside – still human.

Back to a Shrine, Online…

My passion for biography waned years ago, particularly regarding this True Life project. It’s like a form of burnout, and was probably due to a number of factors:

  • In discussing the past with my sister, I was reminded of some very terrible times, and instead of seeing them objectively, like a reporter, I felt them viscerally. I had not really let myself feel them the first time around, and I became angry at my Dad all over again.
  • I was happier in my present, and found myself less interested in discussing my past. I didn’t feel as special either, because I’d learned that my past suffering was really very minimal compared to some of the things other people suffered. I didn’t feel the need to get attention by telling my story. I didn’t even want my colleagues to know much about it. I had nothing to prove, and emotionally had receded a little…
  • The novelty of writing – the excitement of calling myself a writer and of exploring the art form – had been lost. Been there, done that (or so I felt).

So over the past few years, the only writing I’ve done has been occasional journaling, or bits of short-form poetry online in Facebook, and a couple of brief short stories featuring my proxy, Jack Owen.

But…

A recent Google search on my own name (ego, thy name is John) led me to searching for my parent’s names, and then an old feeling started to resurface: I’m trying to keep them alive.

In fact, I want to read about their story myself! I truly believe that the Internet is my go-to global memory, even as an extension of my own memory. Maybe I want to keep them “alive” online as a way to reconnect with them. It’s like visiting a gravesite. The stone is still there and will stand the test of time. Funny how the ephemeral Internet feels permanent to me. It’s a place where I can preserve the pieces I have. One day, I will forget things – I will lose the last of it. Some of my web pages might outlive me though. Maybe.

As angry as I am at my Dad even 30 years later, I don’t want his name to disappear. He burnt bridges more than he’d ever have admitted, but he doesn’t deserve to disappear. My Mum died alone and largely forgotten in Riverview. How will she be remembered? By web-shrining their memories, how will I be remembered? Will I finally be the good son who kept the memories together, who tended the garden that they abandoned? I have no idea, but apparently the need hasn’t left me yet.

In my online personal and professional life, I use Google like a mental scrapbook, a photo album, a repository. I started putting images and stories about them online in 1998, and I told myself a web-based shrine would help me to remember their stories as time passed and experience faded in narrative.

I think I’ve just felt the fear of forgetting tap me on the shoulder. I’m still the only one who can tell my story the way it needs to be told.

I should get back to it now…

Seventeen, and Untethered…

It was 1983 and Christmas was coming, but Dad’s heart attack came first on December 21st. It was a terrifying wake-up call.

He fell out of bed at maybe 5:30 or 6am, all tangled up in his sheets. We were on Christmas break, just a few days before the 25th. I think most of my shopping was already done and I’d even gotten the tree up too. I was seventeen.

It was that built-up feeling, that low-level anticipation that accumulates around you in the air, in the clouds of people’s laughs dissipating as they talk about it. It builds up under car tires on the street, and in the folds of coat sleeves bringing bags home from the mall. Christmas excitement and with it, Christmas stress.

So something broke inside my Dad and he fell out of bed early that day. Instead of being woken up by his voice saying “come on son, time to get up”, I heard him call out my name, loud and shaking. He sounded desperate and I found him laying on the floor wrapped in his sheet, trying to get untangled, telling me to call an ambulance. My sister heard us, and we yelled at each other to call 911.

The ambulance arrived and two large paramedics carried Dad downstairs in his t-shirt and briefs, and one said “Oof. Big boy.” He must have been at least 240 pounds and over 6 feet tall. The Love men were all so much bigger than me. In my shock at seeing him helpless, I still remained proud of his size.

Whether agreed or discussed, I don’t know, but my sister stayed behind at the house and I went in the ambulance with Dad. His eyes were wide and he was soaked in sweat, and probably frozen stiff in the sub-zero morning air. It couldn’t have been 2 degrees outside – probably more like minus 2.

In Emergency at Burnaby General, I stayed with him for an hour or more. He looked at me with the scaredest face I’d ever seen. It was his true self, which perhaps I’d never seen before. His face said “I’m scared to hell” but his voice said “I love you son”. I tried not to cry and to not let my voice shake, but he saw and knew that I felt the same way he did. We held hands the way brothers do, with that underhanded grip that looks like the beginning of an arm wrestle. We clenched hands tight and I told him I loved him too. He said “I’ll be okay. You go home and take care of your sister”, so that’s what I did because I always did what Dad told me to do. Right then I didn’t know what else to do. I needed him to tell me.

I left his ER bed and phoned Kim at home, and through her crying and my shaky words, we discussed what Dad had told me, and I said I was coming home.

When I walked out the doors from Emerg, I felt a wave of fainting, and jammed my back up against the building as my legs gave out. I slid down into a crouch as everything went grainy, snowy blue, and a bell rang hard in my ears. I gasped for breath and waited until my head cleared and the ringing stopped. It was too much. I had to get home.

I don’t remember a Christmas that year. I remember drinking with my friends in our livingroom and a lot of awkward fucking silence. The townhouse was the same space it had always been, but Dad’s absence was a huge damned elephant. That first night, my sister and I each spent the evening at different friends houses, talking and being consoled. I went to my friend Jamie’s and drank with his family. His mum cried for my sister and me, calling us babies. Her slightly drunk but sincere motherliness has always stuck with me. Kim and I had each found somewhere to be around friends.

I began listening to “Pink Floyd, The Wall” on my Walkman every night. I’d lay in bed too wound up to sleep, and would live through the scenes from The Wall, with all those sad Father and Mother images and the character of poor Pink, the lost boy, losing his identity and losing his mind. I was afraid of the future and beginning to hate the world more than ever. Other times, I just felt lifeless and depressed.

During the day I was the dutiful son, making daily or bi-daily visits to the hospital or to the grocery store. I kept shit running at home the best a responsible teen could. During the night, I felt alone, bleak, and lost. I was untethered and a big part of me was depressed and stressed. I wished for everything to just be over. I wished for someone to love me, and help me feel secure. Life sucked more than it ever had before, and I couldn’t imagine a future.

Dad gradually got better over the weeks, then months. Then he got worse (four strokes) and did eventual, continuous rehab until he was able to move and kind of control his left arm a little and speak more clearly. It was a long, slow process of not knowing what the next day would bring, but I was really proud of his progress and of how hard he’d worked to literally get back on his own two feet. His face showed that he was proud too. I will always have gratitude to the Activation Ward in BGH for the therapy and support that they gave my Dad.

A counselor at the hospital told me that I was handling events that adults twice my age could not, and this also made me feel proud. But I was also feeling depressed, dog-tired, and emotionally lost in my life.

I had Dad’s debit card and he told me his pin, so I kept the house stocked with food and wrote cheques for him to sign to pay the bills. He always trusted me. Still, my sister and I were just teens – kids really – so Dad never knew that we partied our asses off in the house, or that I sat in his recliner drinking beer and playing The Doors really loud on his stereo. The cat was away, and the mice were 15 and 17. The cops came only once and warned us to behave ourselves. After that, we settled down, but my poor gentle neighbours did hear a lot of shit through the walls, I’m sure

Dad had always smoked about a pack a day, and he drank every night. He never really did any exercise, never had friends over, and never did anything but work. I also believe he harboured a lot of guilt for the abuse he gave my mother, and her emotional collapse into depression, and the other forms of abuse he visited on us.

By the time of his heart attack in ’83, my Mum had been a patient in Riverview and a ward of the province for a couple of years already. Dad had basically stopped going in with us to visit her by that point, claiming back pain. He would just sit in the car, wait for us, and smoke. I resented him for it, and thought he was an awful coward for not going in with us. I felt like I had to compensate for him. I did not understand what he might have been struggling with emotionally. This stress was probably a major factor in Dad’s health collapse.

Looking back on him and his pride and ego,I’ll bet Dad felt like his family was a failure – maybe his failure. And in many ways, we were a failed family, but that was never solely his fault, even if it was his burden to bear. I won’t forgive him for things he did, but I will still feel compassion for his suffering and near-death collapse. I still respect his strength and stubborness.

When Dad did finally come home again from the hospital, he was walking with a cane, holding his head up, but really he was kind of broken-down and had a hard time noticing things on his left side, like a few of our well-meaning neighbours, who awkwardly tried to welcome him back.

Within a month or two, he went on a serious drinking binge and caused himself a bad stroke, and went back to hospital. He just couldn’t stop drinking. He rehabbed again, and finally quit smoking and drinking for good, but also fell down in the shower in hospital and fractured his hip (plus, had another stroke). He never walked again after that, confined to a wheelchair, and settled into a private hospital. I didn’t let him go, but visiting him became one of my weekly errands. He never came home again.

A vision of alternate lives, in alternate homes…

Each of our lives is ours to live, but some of us need support and care to help us live it in a safe and fulfilling way.

After three months of physical and emotional trauma, my brother-in-law is finally transitioned into an excellent long-term care hospital. He’s been through a lot of pain and difficult changes, but I think where he is now may be the best hospital in the city, a place where he can begin to settle into a new weekly routine, and start relying on consistent, professional support and maybe even a healthier lifestyle.

I won’t use his name here, because my goal is not to tell his story, and his story was never mine to tell anyway. The reason I mention him is that trying to be with him through his surgery, through his worries and legitimate fears, through his physical recovery, and through our family (re)bonding, I’ve been granted a poignant reminder of the special needs of those who are wheelchair-bound.

This line of thought leads me back to where most of my journalling usually leads me – to my parents.

The hospital I’m thinking of is focused on the needs of wheelchair-bound people – those with physical disabilities, and to some degree, with mental or emotional issues as well. I can so picture my mother Angela booting around in a motorized chair, getting music therapy  – maybe trying to play an instrument again – and laughing and interacting with a few people. This is probably where she should have been, but her reality was not like this at all.

Angela’s brain damage in the 70s didn’t destroy all of her personality – she was just lost inside a mental fog of lost memories and anti-depressants, I think. She didn’t have much quality of life in Riverview’s long-term care ward, as far as I ever saw. (She was in one ward or another out there, over the course of fourteen years. I visited her so infrequently in the last few years, that I must admit to not knowing what her life was like at all.)

In the early nineties, she fractured her hip (a “compression fracture”, whatever that is) and I’m sure this killed any chance of her walking again. But there were perhaps ten years before that where I supose she could have been physically capable of walking, but she was always situated in a wheelchair, motionless (sometimes with loose cloth straps on her skinny arms), and you just take it for granted. You believe she’s like that for a reason – that she’s not able to walk. But even in the early 80s when she was first admitted to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, I kind of think there was no approach to holistic health care.

Perhaps the psychiatric hospital medicated her to help alleviate her mood swings, or to generally pacify her and make her more manageable or compliant, but it’s equally likely in my mind that they may have had little mandate or funding to address physical therapy or explore how movement, music and activity might have improved her quality of life. All I ever saw was a woman sitting tremoring or rocking in a wheelchair, never speaking, and seemingly interested in nothing. That’s no damned kind of life.

My Dad also lived in a hospital during his last six years. He settled into a little private hospital called “Carlton Lodge” (now “Carlton Gardens”). After suffering and rehabbing through five strokes and a fractured hip, he had retained all his mental faculties, but they were trapped within a beaten, weakened and partially paralysed body.

Some of the happiest times my Dad had in his last years were when he began going to a recreation centre attached to a local church. He socialized among some peers, and enjoyed the antics of some of the livelier seniors, who would crack jokes that would make him smile. Generally, my Dad didn’t seem to know how to socialize with others, and may have been struggling with the alcohol-fuelled depression and the deadened moods that we all felt at home. He probably needed external stimulation and someone intelligent to discuss things with, but in his care home he was mostly just stuck in the company of people who were 20 years older than him, and often suffering various stages of dementia. So, he bonded a little with the staff, whenever he could.

My bro-in-law has many physical challenges to contend with that keep him in his wheelchair, but his mind is lively and he is keenly  aware of his situation. He also needs lots of stimulation, and to maintain some level of independence – to live life on his own terms. He has it in his new hospital-home, and I have high hopes for his eventual adaptation and improved peace of mind.

So the lesson I’m being reminded from watching my brother-in-law’s experiences are:

  • Being involved with others is key to maintaining some level of hope, joy, and general mental health. (Don’t isolate yourself.)
  • Being physically active, and physically healthy supports your spirit as well as your body. (Don’t stagnate yourself.)
  • Being intellectually and mentally challenged keeps your mind in good shape. (Stay curious.)

I guess the focus must stay on vitality, on enablement, on being able to do things that make you happy, that give you a sense of satisfaction or independence and pride – of getting enough support so that you can have a life of your own. I wish for those who are able to try and make it for themselves.

A beautiful blossom, and a community to nurture it.

These words will be my attempt to capture the joy and delight of watching a friend and former colleague unfurl like a crisp, white sail on a very special day.

I first met Carol when she interviewed for a co-op programmer position at Vancouver English Centre (a large ESL school in the Yaletown district of Vancouver). We needed a programmer and DBA, and I’d convinced my boss to hire a co-op student. Carol’s grades and programmng training were strong, but having interviewed a number of enthusiastic young students in the past, what stood out for me was her interpersonal skills; she had a sensitive emotional intelligence which I’d not seen in her peers. So, Carol signed on for an eight-month co-op appointment and she rapidly became not just a technical resource to me and our staff, but also a warmly-liked (and to some, beloved) member of our school’s little technical team.

Still in her mid-twenties at that point, Carol had many observations about life, and was still in the midst of deciding which path she might take in her career. As she told me about her life in China before her family came to Canada, and about her life as a student at Simon Fraser University, she aways emanated a hopefulness, lightness and buoyant optimism that easily eroded any of my jaded experience and cynical world-views. In short, in spite of any worries or questions that may have been facing her, Carol always smiled, appreciated her life, and held a hopeful, positive approach.

Over those eight months working together, Carol became a joyful “little sister” figure to me, inspiring me to be at my best as her mentor and supervisor. I’m about ten or eleven years older than Carol, and have had some experience managing small teams in other companies, but I’ve always wanted my working relationships to be that of equal humans who happen to have different experiences. I try to remember that regardless of our different backgrounds, each of us is an expert in something, and so, each is worthy of respect. Carol would sometimes tease me and refer to me as her teacher or mentor, and we’d laugh as I stroked my long, imaginary wizard’s beard.

I cannot recall if I ever gave her advice of any real value, but we talked about beliefs a lot – belief systems, values that were important to each of us, and events in our families or personal experiences that influenced us. Carol had her own ideas about values and morals, and her inquisitive nature and life experiences led her to consider Christianity as her preferred value system.

After her co-op term was completed and she graduated from SFU, she found employment nearby, doing programming and testing for a large software company. She had settled into the beginning of her career and transformed from a student-learner to a skilled knowledge worker and engineer.

After that point, Carol and I generally lost touch for many years, finally connecting again in the last few years via LinkedIn, and then Facebook, where I discovered that she had an eye for beauty and a talent for photography. It was in Carol’s close-up photographs of flowers and plants that I caught a glimpse of her curiosity and her idealism: her love of simplicity, purity, and iconic symbolism. Maybe all the world might be found in the heart of a flower, or in the right moment of light cast upon a statue in the park. I could see that Carol had calm patience, a good eye for detail, and a steady hand.

When we finally shared lunch at my work a couple of months ago, my little Chinese sister bounded into the foyer like a reindeer on Christmas morning. Rarely have I felt so touched and welcomed as by Carol in that one, enthusiastic greeting. Once again, I felt that familiar glow of unbridled joy that was dear Carol. She told me I was still her mentor, and we laughed about my continued yet unlikely candidacy for that position. After we had a happy lunch catching up on each others lives, she invited me to attend her wedding. As my jaw hung open, she laughed, telling me that her fiance was also named John. I beamed, telling her how very happy I was for her. Now, her joyous leaps and bounds became even clearer to me: this was the major happiness in her life, and she was truly the happiest I’d ever seen her. The young lady who’d wondered to me about philosophy and values had found them within her Christian faith and, through her church community, she’d also found her life partner. Carol had indeed resolved her personal patterns and closed her circles. She seemed to truly  have found the things that she needed to complete herself on a personal level.

My wife and I sat in the church, and witnessed the community and camraderie around us. The mothers of the bride and groom held hands as they walked to the front and lit a candle together – a most heart-warming and beautiful symbol of family unity. We watched the groom and his party walk with head held high to the front, and finally, Carol and her father walked gingerly down the aisle, walking in carefully-timed steps, as if on eggshells. Carol was an elegant, beautiful vision in white satin and lace, and she seemed in that moment to embody the idealistic virtues that she’d demonstrated in the past.

My impression is that this new couple are surrounded by loving family and friends, and grounded in a very strong community. Such caring support bodes very well for their future happiness and success. What a lovely couple they make, and how happy I am for dear Carol.

It’s indeed a joy and an honour to witness the moment when someone you’ve known is unfurled into their fullest, best self, like a crisp white sail in a strong wind.

Remembering Dad’s Birthday…

Remembered Dad’s birthday again. Sometimes it feels like it’s slipping away.
I remember the man at different times.

I remember when he taught me to lace my runners when i was eight. He taught me the shape and sequence of tying them myself.
Later, when I twisted my ankle badly, he put me down on the couch and i felt cared for.

I remember him being the boss at his job, commanding respect with his inherent authority. At home, he was the boss too, and hated criticism and was not wrong.

I remember being a teen. He taught me how to punch, and he let he practice my one-two, left-right punches on his open, calloused hands. I wasn’t as big or confident as the other guys, and he wanted me to defend myself. He made me feel strong and proud, like a young man. There was no defense from him though, if I ever crossed him or challenged him. He did punch me once in anger, and it hurt. When I didn’t look up to him, I might feel fear of him.

I remember the contradictory lessons. The words he spoke were right, fair and ethical: “Respect the rights of others”, he would preach, and we tried to understand. But some of his words were sometimes racist, and some of his actions had no self-respect in them, or were downright hurtful to others.

He had difficulty with women, yet probably yearned to put them on a pedestal. He had serious, intelligent thoughts, yet being aďdicted to alcohol made him seem less intelligent. He loved his siblings and spoke warmly of being a kid and playing with them, but he rarely phoned any of them, and never wrote.

You were my hero, old man, from when I was old enough to walk until your heart attack and numerous strokes took away your ability to walk. By the time that your body had broken down enough and it stopped obeying you, I was beginning to live my own life at 19, and didn’t have to obey you. Then, when i loved you, you were a busted-down, but sweet and harmless man, staring off dreamily into past glories, remembering how great you once were. If you were bitter or hurtful, or had resentment or anger in your voice, I could tell myself it was maybe your own karma coming back to haunt you. I didn’t have to listen, and now I would never fear you again. Damage and near-death had rendered you a docile and toothless old tiger. Now I feared for you, not from you.

You built our family, and you played a huge part in tearing it down, directly and directly. I stood by you when you needed me, and I needed you to need me, Dad. If you learned from the mistakes you made, you didn’t admit it, but I could see the damned regret in your eyes.

I may be bitter about how some things happened, or wish that we’d had more years together, or that, most of all, you and mum could have stayed healthy and in love, instead of resentful, hurt, and physically and emotionally separated for the last 15 years of your life. It was what it was, and you and mum take many truths with you, that we’ll never see.

So this is this year’s memorial to you, Dad. My contradictory, heroic, villain of a father. Your sweetness comes with some bitterness,  but I hold my head up for having been your son once, about twenty-six years ago.

Considering the Highs and Lows…

As I approach my fifth decade, I feel a renewed sympathy for my late mother, Angela. Angela Huntley Love (1931-1995) struggled with bi-polarism and depression throughout most of her life. In hindsight, it seems obvious that her mental health challenges held her back from becoming her best self. She might have become a professional singer, or maybe an actress, or a musician, or all of those things if she’d wanted to, but that never happened. She’s been gone since 1995, but she and her sad history of mental illness have practically never been out of my thoughts.

My Mum had at least two nervous breakdowns that I’m aware of, each landing her in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam. As kids, all my sister and I knew was that our Mum had a nervous breakdown, but it was never explained to us what that actually meant. We had no idea what our Mum was thinking or how she felt. Back in the seventies, when an adult had an emotional or mental breakdown, it wasn’t a shared experience – least of all to the kids. It was something to be ashamed of, to regret, like a failure, or to just swallow down and keep inside, wrapped in mystery and dread.

I learned about my Mum’s condition or wellness by listening in on grown-up conversations, and I discovered her medications by finding prescriptions for lithium sulphate in her coat pockets when I was rifling around for change. That was during the seventies, when things like mental illness were still generally stigmatized. These days, our culture is so much more open and supportive regarding mental health issues, and we’re much better off as a culture, in my opinion.

We all come from somewhere…

In my life, I’ve been fortunate to have not been challenged with chronic depression or bi-polarism. However, I can say that I’ve had depressed moments, tiny little manic flights of grandiosity, and periods of time when the world seemed to bring me too many terrible misfortunes all out of my control. (Interestingly, that sentence made me sound as if I have had chronic, recurring issues, although in my experience they’ve always been separate, spaced apart by years at a time.)

In my pre-teen and teen years, there was always a quiet, invisible dark cloud over my family and over our home (the stage for our worst scenes). As a kid, I always felt the presence of the cloud but it was invisible or at least never publicly acknowledged around me. I usually walked around feeling extremely self-conscious, certain that others were speaking about me behind my back or gossiping as I walked by. You could never know if others were discussing your family behind your back, either with benevolent, supportive intentions, or just as lascivious, thoughtless gossip. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I was sensitive, insecure, and mildly paranoid most of the time.

I’d always wondered why I’d been born into a family with dysfunctional, alcoholic parents who always seemed to be so unhappy and fighting. As a kid, you perceive things in a self-centred “why me” sort of response, and so “why me” (and the inevitable side-step into “poor me”) were constant background questions as I grew up – pretty much until I was old enough to live on my own and finally move along a positive life path.

Looking back, now that I’m an adult closer to the ages my parents were when I was a teen, I can see that my Mother was deeply depressed about the death of her beloved father, and probably also very unhappy in her marriage, and probably in her life in general (and menopause may have also played a factor in her feelings as well).

Angela had been an only child, and had a very strong bond with her father – probably stronger than to her husband. She was Daddy’s Little Girl, and I have no doubt that this imbalance of loyalty between father and husband was noticed by my Dad, and probably frustrated him.

Angela began self-medicating with alcohol in her teens, and her drinking and depression only worsened as the years went on. Later, in our family, it became the “elephant in the room” scenario, where nobody spoke out or took positive action to get her help. I want to believe that Angela could not see other people’s points of view, nor realize how her depression and alcoholism were hurting the people around her. I need to believe that to keep her sympathetic in my mind. It’s so hard to feel bitterness or anger towards her.

As for my Dad, he was a deeply proud man from a family of four brothers and one sister. The stories he told of his parents were of hard-working people who selflessly raised their kids with the same values. It was an idealised image which I truly think he believed, and I believe it too. But, his idealism, when used to protect himself, could also be a smokescreen, camouflaging his worst insecurities and personal demons. It wouldn’t be until a few years before his death that I’d learn more about my Dad’s negative attachment issues with women, and years after that when I’d really understand the long-term damage he’d caused in my family. He did some selfish evil shit, which contradicted the values he preached to us, so my sympathy for him yields easily to resentment, whenever I do think of the bad times.

You might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with you…

Angela never really spoke to me much, ever. I cannot recall one actual conversation with her – just a few minimal words here and there. She just didn’t interact much, and anything I think I know about her came from other people. She offered nothing emotionally, and I will never know what was in her mind or what she thought of me, either as her son or as a person.

Thinking about what I know about Angela’s personality and mental health challenges, I have always wondered how far my apple fell from her tree.

The Apple and the Tree…

Over the years, I’ve experienced my own episodes of severe sorrow, anxiety, or momentary depression:

  • Back in 1999, the following events caused in a me a dramatic temporary episode that really scared me: I was in transition between jobs, and my sister had reported that she thought her Doctor might diagnose her with cancer (she was waiting on the results of a biopsy at the time). Further, a childhood friend had been struggling with crack and alcohol addiction. (I’ve written about this episode before.) All of these things were out of my control, and as I worried about them one night, I felt my emotions just suddenly go dead, and I felt like I was falling down a very dark hole in my mind. This concerned and fascinated me, so I took my anxious self to the fridge and got a beer, and went to the computer to look up my feelings/symptoms online. The closest match I found was “mini nervous breakdown”. I listened to some Radiohead, drank my beer, and played with my cat, and told myself the feeling would pass, and that it was all triggered by feeling alack of control. The next day, I was much better.
  • In 2009, someone very close to me (whose identity and relationship I’ll protect) tried to commit suicide. I spoke to them on the phone as they slid into unconsciousness from a Tylenol overdose, and I tried to keep them talking until the ambulance arrived. I bargained, I begged, and I yelled. When I finally heard the sirens in the background and then the paramedic’s voices in the room, the phone line went dead, and I collapsed in a sobbing heap on the floor, thinking that I might never see this person again. They survived, but that moment on the phone was as close as I ever want to come to saying goodbye to that person. I realized afterwards that I fear being abandoned and left alone. I don’t want to be the last one standing in my family.
  • My obsessive attachment to my parent’s memories has manifested in a compulsive need to document them and talk about them. This is probably the only way I can retain my attachment to them posthumously. There’s nothing else left. It’s also resulted in my remaining direct (full) family member becoming symbolically super-important to me, such that if I don’t hear from her regularly, I begin feeling anxious and insecure.
  • In the absence of regular siblings around me, I have at times assigned parental or sibling roles onto friends, either consciously  or sub-consciously. So, older female friends may end up treating me with kindness (baking, or sweet words or sympathy) that to me, resembles motherly affection. Younger females (whether relations, acquaintances or colleagues) may also be treated by me as “little sisters”, particularly if they’ve ever sought my opinion or emotional support in the past. I like feeling a good son, and also like a protective big brother. It’s not always been well-balanced or healthy, but I guess I need my symbolic proxies.
  • I had what I would characterize as another mini-nervous breakdown in 2014, triggered by fear of a failing personal relationship, and then exacerbated by a falling out with a favoured coworker. I developed a severely anxious over-reaction to the coworker’s own insecurity and their resulting lack of reciprocal communication (I was frozen out, “ghosted” as I’ve learned it’s called). I’d never experienced such an overtly negative breakdown of affinity, and for months afterwards I held onto a deep shame over hurting them and in realizing that some of it had played out in front of my other colleagues. My professional veneer had been torn away, and in my mind I decided I had to try and repack my personal baggage away as soon as possible and re-establish a persona of outer confidence before it could regrow naturally on the inside. This internal confidence rebuilding took me months, and was like a wound being torn open and rehealed a number of times, gradually getting less raw with each iteration. There’s no band-aid for this shit – no quick fix – just the regrowth of protective scar tissue. I have a difficult time letting go of people and their symbolic value once I’ve let them get under my skin.

All of these experiences seem to have a few things in common: they are episodic (they seem temporary, with a beginning, middle and end, and do not persist chronically for year after year), and they are all connected to my perceived lack of control over events.

The most important thing for me to realize is that it’s my mind, my psychology, that’s truly at the centre of all my problems. My memories and my beliefs about myself are at the core of all my worries, regardless of whomever else I believe is involved. The only thing I can truly control is my inner landscape, and the way in which I choose to respond to outside events and attitudes.