Category Archives: memoirs

Confessions of a Pack Rat

My memories are captured in thousands of files, folders, emails, and websites – and somehow, my pack rat nature has allowed me to preserve most of the digital evidence of my life since about 1998.

The Digital Studio Space

My desktop is a collection of hardly-used capturing tools: a flatbed scanner (that also does slides), a graphics tablet I used for one illustration job seven years ago, a digital camera that has been supplanted by my smartphone, and various bargain audio and video analog-to-digital conversion devices. I still have VHS tapes and audio cassettes that testify to past projects.

It must be something in the blood: my grandfather (and namesake), Ernest Clarke, was a prolific photographer, and I have his prints, negatives, slides, and 8mm film to prove it. His mission seemed to be to immortalize his wife and especially, his daughter Angela. He was somewhat compulsive about it, from the scores of evidence he left us, ranging from photos of native elders probably taken in the 20s, to colour home movies he shot in the 1970s. He’d have gone crazy with digital.

Recently, I upgraded my windows PC to windows 10, and bought myself a 3 terabyte external drive for backups. My desktop PC and all its peripherals and programs constituted my modern digital studio space – my personal workplace for explorations, communications, study, and networking. my grandfather Ernest had a little painting easel tucked in a corner of his basement for working in oil. The tools are different, but I suppose the drive is similar.

With the advent of mobile touchscreen devices, something happened that I didn’t expect: my tablet and laptop took me away from my desk, and kept me either on the couch or in a Cafe (and often digging through Facebook).

Soon enough, I found I was using my smartphone and tablet for almost everything, and rarely ever using my PC for anything (except for banking). That shift in behaviour seemed to change me from a creator into more of a consumer. For quite a few years now, I’ve spent more time surfing and consuming other people’s bytes than I have creating and promoting my own. I think. So, with the spiffed-up desktop environment, I’m probably now in a better position to focus on building my own content again.

So, that covers tools, but what about content? Who and what am I writing and imaging about?

Preserving People, Real and Imagined

I have worked, side-by-side or remotely, with hundreds and hundreds of colleagues since 1992, when my full-time career really kicked into gear. Each person I have met has taught me something about them, and about myself. Some of them were characters, and some of them are bound to become them one day.

Sometimes it’s true that “Hell is other people” . In some social groups, there are always manipulators and cajolers, liars and criers, who use your niceness against you, or use sympathy to gain your confidence and trust. If you don’t let these folks, damage you too badly, they can provide valuable learning regarding human nature. I’ve found that once I recognize the evils and virtues in somebody else’s character, I begin to see them in myself.

Thus, the memories of people you’ve known can be great inspiration for personal memoirs, or raw material for fictional characters.

Space, the Final Frontier

In my profession, I have treasured my semi-private offices or cubicle spaces. Having a little bit of solitude and at least some form of blinders provides an emotional and mental buffer zone, and helps one to concentrate.

However, too much isolation tends to raise stress levels in me, most likely my mind needs a break and a little interaction with someone every few hours. I often forget to do that. it’s important to listen to your heart and mind, to recognize when you need to be alone, or when you need to socialize.

The Real Undiscovered Country is Inside

(Well, I’m on some kind of Star Trek riff, now.)

The value of forming bonds with friends and family is obvious: we need to belong with and to someone, and want to feel part of something bigger and more secure (perhaps) than ourselves.

The hard lessons for me were learning to listen to the voice of my internal judge, to know how much sharing, emotional intimacy is enough with each person, to say enough, but try not to say too much.

Generally, I have a hard time discarding people and objects once I have assigned some sentimental attachment to them. So, I tend to collect people and things.

Interpersonally, I can’t always judge my emotional boundaries and moments quite right, but I tend to keep my doors wide open for anyone to walk in.

Memories are subjective, elusive, permanent, and recurring…

Memories are like dear friends, and bitter enemies. Both burrow down under your skin. They find your emotional nooks and crannies, remind you of your strengths, and expose you to your weaknesses.

Memories can seem as immutable as stone, as unchanging as the mountains, and as permanent as the Earth.

But I have learned that memories are more like chameleons: they take on the colour of your current outlook, and their themes and tone  reflect your own. They’re my own little constructs, my personal little fantasies, a performance that I continually re-stage in my own private playhouse.

The stories that I’ve written for myself probably started in my head as soon as I could think. Like James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the language and models I built have evolved with me, over time.

Memories age and mature with you, like your reflection. You just can’t trust them- they’re as slippery and subjective as you are. For me, memories are the ghosts whom I live with, the echoes of old events and past ideas, reflections of my life and past visceral emotions.

Some memories used to be exceptionally strong, but have waned with experience and considerable reflection:

  • The chest-puffing pride when I was eighteen and would talk about my Dad, or hear his words come out of my mouth. I demolished his pedestal years ago, and put the pieces to better use in rebuilding my own.
  • The bitterness and mistrust I held against richer, happier kids and their functional families. I secretly resented every other kid I saw, certain that they were so much better off than me. Eventually, after high school, I got over it.
  • That feeling that I was unique in my life experiences, wiser and more resilient than my peers, and just plain special. This was mostly my own defense against self pity, isolation, and misery. It worked sometimes, but it was mostly a mask behind which I hid my fear and insecurity. I don’t worry about hiding that much anymore. After the ago of 45, me and my insecurities began to feel much more secure in each other.

Each of these little treasures have waned with time, going from opaque, well-rehearsed scrolls to delicate, dried-out parchments that have degraded with age, and worn down to near transparency.

I can see right through those old narratives now. They’re not very convincing anymore.

Considering Responsible Storytelling…

I’m an amateur writer of fiction and non-fiction. I’m not a reporter or a journalist. I’m not a researcher, or an academician. I’m not scholarly.

I like telling a colourful story, and I love evocative imagery, and poetic license.

In creating my meagre attempts at fiction, there’s wiggle room: I’m not very dependent on historical accuracy or elaborate world-building, IMHO, the reader will likely allow minor inconsistencies if the characters and story are well-formed and worth caring about.

However with biography, I think it’s different. If your subject is someone else you must contend with, and pay respect to, narratives that have already been developed around your subject – especially other people’s real experiences and research.

Even if the subject is yourself, you’re not immune from certain factors: the reality of the other people you’ve known, who you are writing about, and what you can or should ethically reveal which may affect others.

In my case, I think I can almost write anything I want, with the following ideas in mind:

  1. I cannot embarrass or hurt my parents, since they have both passed on, but I could cause embarrassment or discomfort for other family members who may not agree with my stories.
  2. The things I say about other people, places or events still reflects back on me and my character. All art is a form of self portrait.
  3. Rule #2 means that if I embarrass someone else, by definition I am embarrassing myself.
  4. Save your work often kids.

(I had written two or three more really good, well-written points here, but I lost my edits somehow and had to start over. Re-doing, starting a new draft of even a small section,  is my creative Kryptonite. I almost become paralyzed with indecision about whether or not to continue at all. Technology can totally kiss my ass.)

Anyway, on the topic of responsibly biographies, here are a few articles I’m going to read and books to consider, to see if they help me to think more about  ethics and responsibility in biographical writing:

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 because of a number of factors:

  • In discussing the past with my sister, I was reminded of 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 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 suffering was minimal compared to some. I didn’t need to get attention from telling my story. I didn’t even want my colleagues to know much about it. I was receding a little…
  • The novelty of writing – the excitement of calling myself a writer, and exploring the artform – 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 back at it now…

What gets passed down…?

Here are some questions and thoughts I’ll put down while they occur to me:

What gets passed down?

From father to son: is it that men don’t show weakness, or admit to making mistakes? Is it that boys don’t cry?

From mother to daughter: it is that the mother’s relationship with her own father is the only father–daughter bond worth tending to? 

From father to daughter: is it that the parent’s needs outweigh the child’s? 

From mother to son: is it that no matter how much you search for me, you won’t find me. I was never there to be found.

Souls chase each other, maybe endlessly, seeking answers to their private questions, demanding that their anguish be recognized by someone.

Proxies may play the role at different stages.

An old drama, never finished. Conversations seem to barely begin before the actor gets yanked from the stage.

The Director has a sick sense of humour.

I really want my money back.

Remembrance…

Our Remembrance Day just passed recently here, and I did spend some time thinking of my Dad and my maternal Grandfather, and some other things…

My Dad, James Evan Love, served in the Canadian Army as a young man during World War II, and later in the RCAF. I was born late in my Dad’s life, so I have no direct memory of his military service or military life, but he always spoke proudly of his military service, the friends he made, and the education and experiences he had. I think military life really suited him.

As a young man, my maternal grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, tried to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (World War 1), but was released on medical grounds. So, not long after that rejection, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and served as a Mountie all over Western Canada from 1918 to 1948. My mother was born in Victoria, BC in 1931.

These two men and their past service were the reason that Remembrance Day has a personal resonance. For the past two years, I’ve gone down to the Cenotaph in Victory Square to take part in the Remembrance Day ceremony. This year, I slept in and just watched it on TV.

It used to be a passion of mine to record my family history in my blogs and  in a family tree, but in recent years, I have mostly given up that responsibility.

Not long after my Mother died in 1995, I felt a strong urge to record my family’s story. Something in me felt a burning desire to record our stories before they were forgotten. I would have been about 29 or 30 at that time. I was happily married since 1989, my career was exciting and unique, I had just started paying for my own condo, and I still felt like a creative person – almost like an artist-designer.

Well, now it’s over 20 years later, and I’ve practically lost my drive to write the family story. Originally, it must have had something to do with being young and driven, feeling like a standard-bearer, feeling like the one to whom this responsibility had been passed; feeling like I had to be the wise and responsible young man.

There came a day in my mid-to-late forties when I realized that of all the feelings I had about my parents and my upbringing, resentment and regret were the predominant ones. I simply resented our failed family and our unhappy, chaotic upbringing. After the true depth of my Dad’s secret crimes had been discussed and processed, I grew sick of it all. Sick of feeling afraid of him, and sick of my mother’s silence, absence and mental illness. My largest feelings became that they were just broken, selfish people, and it became hard to generate love for their memory in my heart anymore.

The other night, I tried to remember the month and year that Mum almost died from alcohol poisoning. This is a major mile marker in the road of my story, and something I’ve talked or written about a lot over the years. And I couldn’t remember when it happened. That was kind of terrifying. I’d always prided myself on my memory, and my ability to tell a story. Now, as I’d originally feared, little pieces of the narrative were starting to grow weak and fall away. Was it disuse, or just age? I turned Fifty last March.

Maybe I’ve burned out on Mum and Dad. Dozens of years after their deaths, perhaps we’re finally estranged. Maybe I’m the last one practicing my own oral history, and I’m starting to lose the words to the passage of time. Maybe it’s a natural way to let go of old baggage.

All I can think to do to counteract this is to keep writing it down. But now, I’ll tell myself the truth: I’m writing for my own sake – not for anyone else’s.

Days of Wine and Regret…

Movies or music that speaks to you plucks old strings that are personal; a matter of past influences and conditioning, present circumstances, and futures you used to want.

The movie “The Days of Wine and Roses” is (IMHO) overly dramatic, a sixties romance, showing people drowning in alcoholism, and in their binges, reverting to helpless, childlike despair.
It had been recommended to me, and I ran across it tonight on TCM.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Days_of_Wine_and_Roses_(film)

But among its hollywood love-theme about a couple trying to rebuild their lost love and innocence, it did surprise me with a few paralell themes from my own life:
A drunken mother who accidentally sets fire to her home,
a father who loses his job, then loses his wife, and then struggles with sobriety.

Those kinds of things happened around me and my sister.
But real-life leaves scars on top of and under the skin that Max Factor can’t conceal. No retakes. No redemption.

Nobody talks, reconciles, or gets back together. They just stay hurt, and gradually go numb in their respective neutral corners,
and leave their loose ends for law enforcement, healthcare, and social workers to sort out.

Just days and days of Sherry and Port. No romance. No sweetness.

Seventeen, and Untethered…

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

He fell out of bed maybe at 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.

It was that build-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 probably too, Christmas stress.

So something broke inside my Dad, and he fell out of bed early that day. Instead of being woken by his voice saying “come on, time to get up”, I heard him call my name, loud and shaking. He sounded desperate, laying on the floor wrapped in a sheet, trying to get out, saying call an ambulance. My sister heard and we yelled at each other to call 911. One of us did. It might have been me, but I can’t recall.

Two large paramedics carried Dad down the steps 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 at the house, and I went in the ambulance with Dad. His eye were wide, and he was soaked in sweat, and probably frozen in the frigid morning air. It couldn’t have been 2 degrees out – probably less.

In emergency at Burnaby General, I stayed with him for an hour or more, until he looked at me with the scaredest face I’d ever seen on him. It was his true self, which I perhaps I’d never seen before. His face said “I’m scared to hell”, and his voice said “I love you son”. I tried not to cry and to not let my voice shake, but he saw and knew I felt the same as him. We held hands the way brothers do – 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 son. You go home and take care of your sister”, so that’s what I did, because I always did what Dad wanted. Right then I didn’t know what else to do, and I needed him to tell me.

I phoned Kim at home, and through her crying and my shaky words, we discussed what Dad had told me, and I said i’m 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 some bell rang hard in my ears. I gasped breaths 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, and a lot of awkward fucking silence. 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. 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. Life sucked more than it ever had before.

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. A counselor at the hospital told me I was handling events that adults twice my age could not, and this made me feel proud. But i was depressed and emotionally lost.

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, we were kids, and he 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 once and warned us. After that, we settled down a bit. My poor gentle neighbours heard a lot of shit.

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 his 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.

When Dad did finally come home again from the hospital, he was walking with a cane, holding his head up, but he was broken and had a hard time noticing things on his left side, like 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, but also fell down in the shower in hospital and fractured his hip (plus, had another stroke). He never walked again, confined to a wheelchair, and he never came home again after that.

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.

When Mum escaped with me, to see Star Wars.

In 1977, I begged my folks to take me to see Star Wars. My Dad didn’t go to movies (in fact, he didn’t do much of anything aside from work and buy groceries), but my Mother decided to take me.

It was maybe May or June of 1977. An ad for Star Wars was playing on TV and I was jumping up and down, saying “This is it! Can I go to see Star Wars?” I really lost my shit over it. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever been excited about anything the way the Star Wars movie had excited me. I wanted to see it so much, and I really wanted my Dad (family authority and sole car driver) to know how strongly I felt about it. The movie was new and exciting, and it was calling to me. I had to go.

Dad said something like he wasn’t interested in some space opera. I remembered that he listened to country music, and wasn’t into science fiction or fantasy or anything fun or imaginative. (However, I would recall years later how his eyes would light up a bit when he’d talk about physics or technology, or how he told me that as a kid, he used to enjoy those Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movie serials. Ironic.)

So, Dad didn’t take me to see Star Wars. But something really cool happened. My Mother took me.

I need to explain why this was such a big deal. Telling you the story of why requires that I tell you a bit of the recent history of my family up to this point.

My mother, Angela, had been an only child, and she had always been particularly close to her father – maybe even a bit dependant on him. Ever since her Mother died in 1971, Angela and her father probably needed each other more than ever. He lived in Victoria and she in Vancouver. In her heart, I believe that no man was as important to Angela as her Dad. This was probably obvious to my father James, and I suppose it would have grated on his pride and sense of authority. James didn’t consider himself second-best to anybody, living or dead.

But in 1977, Angela’s father did die, and a huge portion of her heart went down into the grave with him. Already a manic-depressive and an alcoholic, Angela slumped into a deep depression, never leaving the house, and spending most of her time either upstairs in her bed, or downstairs, laying on the couch with her back to us. Even in healthier days past, she’d never been all that communicative with my sister and me, and had never seemed suited to any degree of parenthood, but she became even more remote and non-commuicative after the loss of her beloved Dad. She gave up trying to have any kind of life, she gave up on interacting almost entirely, and gradually she gave up on eating as well.

She had succumbed to her own darkness, avoiding her family and even daylight itself. She’d get up during the night and raid the fridge to make a sandwich or to drink, or maybe she’d vomit in the bathroom sink (or on the carpet if she didn’t make it). It was no way to live. I think that Angela hated her life and was in the gradual process of trying to get out of it by drinking herself to death.

While all this was happening, my sister and I swallowed our worry, fear or dread, and did what our Dad seemed to do: walk around the problem, not talk about it, and try to make it seem inconsequential or even somehow normal. But it wasn’t normal at all. Angela’s darkness had her wrapped up tight.

So that’s why it was such a rare and delightful surprise to find myself walking with my Mum down Granvillle Street on that sunny day. She had put on makeup and white gloves to mask the colourful scars on her face and hands (the result of a terrible housefire while she was pregnant with me, about eleven years earlier), and she’d worn her pretty mink jacket, as if she were going to a Broadway premiere. She’d dusted off her class and self-respect for everyone to see, and I was so happy and proud to be with her that day.

We went into the Vogue Theatre, and sat down inside an audience that had an electric energy throughout it. Everyone was talking and the whole space buzzed and hummed with anticipation. The lights went down, and as the coming attractions played, a shower of ice and popcorn rained down from the balcony above us. I’d never seen anything like it before.

Then it was the movie! First the black screen, then BAM! Logo! Horns! Trumpets blaring! I was out of my mind. Mum was sitting right next to me, but for the next couple of hours, I was long gone in that galaxy far, far away. That one movie made all fantasy movies important for me in a new way. I wanted to escape from my home life into new, exciting and rewarding worlds whenever I could, and as often as possible, I would.

And maybe Angela wanted to escape too. As a little girl, she had loved The Wizard of Oz. She identified with Dorothy, and maybe she’d even fancied herself something of a Judy Garland. Under her sad scars from third-degree burns, Angela had once been movie star beautiful. In her youth, she’d sung and acted in local theatre in Victoria, and could play piano and violin with great skill. She had once been lively and beautiful, but always dogged by manic-depression and then alcoholism.

Maybe her connection to her father had been her compass bearing to happer, earlier times – glory days in another life, long ago and far away. As she got older and her life got unhappier, she wanted to escape, I suppose. Perhaps when Poppy died, she felt there’d never be any rescue for her. Maybe with that she wanted to die too, perhaps to even be with her father again. I will never know.

But for that one day, perhaps she saw a chance to escape in a happier way, to see a story that resembled a movie she’d loved as a kid. So, she escaped with her son, and took him to see Star Wars. It was the last thing we ever did together as Mother and Son.

A number of months later, Angela would succeed in drinking herself right to the edge of death, ruining her liver and suffering permanent brain damage. If she’d stayed home for 24 hours more, she’d surely have died in her bed. She did survive, but with permanent brain damage, a loss of years of memory, and a somewhat different personality than before. She was permanently transformed. Her next eighteen years were lived in a variety of hospitals and care homes, particularly Riverview, where she died in 1995.

This is why Angela getting up off the couch and dressing up to take me downtown was such a big deal. It was something I wanted, and although I’ll never know if she did it for me, it was probably something that she wanted too: an afternoon’s escape into fantasy heroics and ideals so that you could forget the dead-end darkness that waited for you back at home.

When I watch Star Wars, I see myself in Luke Skywalker. When I watch The Wizard of Oz, I see Angela Love in Dorothy Gale.