Category Archives: memoirs

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.

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 eye 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 out – 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 on him. It was his true self, which I 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 his face showed that he was too. I will always have gratitude to the Activation Ward in BGH for the therapy and support they gave Dad.

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 feeling depressed, dog-tired, 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 just teens – kids really – so 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 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 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, 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 he 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.

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.

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.

The Ebb and Flow of Curtis James

Today, as I often do, I saw Curtis James pan-handling at Stadium SkyTrain station. Normally he’s a fairly upbeat, even cheery fellow, but he was different today. He was quite agitated with humanity.

“You’re not in your usual spot, out front there today”, I observed, dropping a little change into his upturned ball cap. It was weird to see Curtis standing off to the side, shaking his head and not smiling or interacting with people. Usually he was quite social.

“People are mean today. They don’t care,” he said bitterly. “I’ve had it – to like, like this!” He raised his hand above the level of his head. He was fucking frustrated, the poor guy.

His fingernails were long, dirty and hooked like claws, making his hands look dangerous. I wondered if anyone ever took care of him.

“Aw, people can suck sometimes, yeah,” I tried to sympathize. I’d never seen Curtis so obviously impatient with the apathy of his fellow man. I speculated that maybe he hadn’t gathered any change today, or maybe he’d just felt ignored.

“Don’t let ’em get you down, man. You stay positive.” The words came out automatically and sounded hollow even as I said them.

“Yeah, I need to change my outlook,” he muttered, working on convincing himself.

“Find that happy place – your happy place.”

Curtis’s face changed from disappointment to resolve, just like that. His energy picked up, and he looked at me with furrowed brows and serious eyes. He began quoting something inspirational from the bible, and I found us both walking down into the SkyTrain station together.

He was resilient, and was starting to mentally self-correct. “You take care of yourself now,” I said, starting to turn away.

“God bless you, brother,” he said, patting my shoulder. He was happier now, and gave me a big open yellow smile. I smiled back and meant it, and Curtis exclaimed “John Love!”, which was the nicest compliment I’d gotten all day.

Everyone has a shitty day sometimes, no matter who you are.


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.

“All anyone needs is an E.D.!”

My street-panhandler friend, Curtis James, was on a real funny rant today, outside Stadium SkyTrain:

Curtis: “Doctor Love! I should call you Doctor Love!”

Me: “Sure man. You wouldn’t be the first. I do make house-calls.”

Curtis: “You should be Professor Love!” Then he thought for a moment before continuing. “Naw, you know, you don’t need a doctor of science degree, or a masters of math degree, or a bachelors of arts and science degree. You don’t need a PhD or a Doctors of anything degree. What you need is an E.D. All anyone needs is an E.D.!”

Me: “An E.D.? What?”

Curtis: “Everyone should have an E.D.”

Me: (Starting to chuckle) “Naw man, I don’t want E.D. Anyway, they have a little blue pill for that.” No response except for Curtis’ confused expression. Then he was off again on his universal idea.

Curtis: “You need to be a Doctor of Education, that’s all you need! Then you’re the doctor. ED – the Education Doctor! That’s all you need man!” By this time, Curtis has really gotten me laughing.

Me: “I think that the good teachers want you to really learn how to learn, to be able to teach yourself, to learn face-first from life.”

I shook his hand and wished him a happy day.

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.

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

It can be easy to get through difficult times – traumas – feeling as if you’ve conquered them, or at least survived them. You pat yourself on the back, saying how good and strong you are. You tell yourself that you’ve made it.

You ought to feel so proud of yourself, but don’t be. In truth, you may have only won a single conflict – a skirmish. There may be more to come, and if it does come, it won’t be clearly-defined, like a battlefield scenario with easy-to-identify winners and losers. It will more likely be covert, like guerilla warfare, with values or outcomes that could remain ambiguous for years.

Basically, shit from your past will return and find you. It needs to be dealt with openly, honestly, and fully, or else it will continue to deal with you on its terms, and not on your terms.

The fact is, when you don’t understand, tame, and come to terms with (even befriend) your past issues, they will come back. Life can fight dirty, hitting below the belt, or hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportune time to strike. Life seems able to hold off on its future plans for you until you are the least prepared.

Today, if you are vulnerable to the actions or reactions of certain types of people, it’s likely you were raised within that, trained by circumstance to respond a certain way, and rewarded either positively or negatively (both are effective teachers).Maybe you never managed to break out of the cycle of behaviour that you were born into.

The Mother Archetype.

For me, themes of guilt, helplessness, and shame were all connected to my mother, Angela Huntley Love. In her youth, she’d been a talented musician, singer and actor, and movie star beautiful. In her young adulthood, she was also diagnosed as manic-depressive (“bi-polar”, in today’s terms), and she began to self-medicate with alcohol. By the time I was old enough to know her, she was already a chronic alcoholic.

Angela had some good, happy times, but many more lonely, unhappy times. I feel that for most of her life, she was lonely, separated from her friends. Angela probably should have been surrounded by more caring people who could give her the love and support she needed. Throughout Angela’s life, mental illness still scared people.Very few people would have had the emotional tools to support her when she needed it.Nobody talked about it, except in hushed tones.

Certainly my Dad didn’t have any skills in that regard. Every talk that I remember my Mum and Dad having would degrade into a screaming fight. As kids, my sister and I could only cower, watching things unfold and get nasty. One time, maybe a shoulder got dislocated. Other times, blood flowed or furniture got broken. Sometimes bruises formed, and sometimes, thank god, the cops would arrive to calm things down. Those were the worst moments – when fear dried your mouth and you didn’t know what would happen next. The scars that  formed under our skin lasted years after the purple, green and yellow marks had faded from the surface.

Fear and self-doubt go hand in hand.

Loving, gentle moments were counted on one hand, across many years. We wondered what had happened to the smiling people from those wedding photos, the ones who looked at each other with such love and devotion? Why was nobody helping them now?

As a little kid, you find ways to blame yourself for someone else’s failings, and you project yourself and your meagre life experience into the empty void before you, trying to create a pattern in the place of a mystery, to fill the void with something, anything, that you can work with to try and understand someone else’s mind.

And so it was that my mother Angela Huntley Love remained a mystery to me, never telling me anything much about her life, and never demonstrating through her actions what a beautiful, angelic songbird she’d once been. She had been her Daddy’s little girl – the apple of his eye – and after he died in 1978, she completely gave up on life. She fell apart. Her nerves and her heart broke, and she didn’t even try to save herself. She probably didn’t want to live any more.

The fear of “I broke it but I can’t fix it”.

As a little boy, I would often take my toys apart to see how they worked, and as often, would not be able to put them back together. Until my parents clued in and started buying me Lego, I had “ruined” a nice train set and some other toys, and had been punished or at least severely yelled at for “breaking everything I touched”. This was sad and frustrating for me, and I developed a fear of breaking things that could not be repaired – irreparable damage was a great fear of mine. This kind of catastrophizing fear is easily re-opened in an alcoholic family where damage is emotional, not understood for years (if ever), and deeply, privately hidden. Once an emotional bond of love has been damaged by fear, it feels broken, and you may believe that it can never be repaired.

With Angela, I never felt particularly cared for or loved by her. I have photographs that show that she loved me as a baby (holding me or playing with me), but as I got older, we had few of those moments, it seemed. Maybe once every couple of months or so, Mum would become lively, animated and fun-loving, and take Kim’s tiny little bicycle for a ride down the block, or in a burst of creativity, create robot costumes for us out of cardboard boxes and coloured foil. A good deal of the rest of the time, she was emotionally flat or depressed, doing nothing and saying nothing – just smoking and not interacting with anybody.

So, I have come to understand her alcohol overdose and liver failure in 1977 as an attempt to drink herself into oblivion, perhaps to join her father in some kind of afterlife or final release from pain. Over the course of a year in 1977, she gave up eating meat, then gave up eating altogether. She drank nocturnally and either slept on the couch all day, or stayed in bed until one day, she couldn’t be roused.

After a transfusion and some kind of recovery in Burnaby General Hospital, she spent a year or two of being shuffled from private hospital to private hospital, and eventually ended up in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, as a ward of the province, under long-term care. The liver failure and massive blood alcohol content had given her brain damage and memory loss. She was a different person than the mostly sullen, sometimes manic mother we’d gotten used to. She didn’t really recognize us any more, or seemed to have no connection to any past we’d shared. She had receded into herself even more, I thought at the time. Maybe she was a rebooted person. It was all beyond my control in any case. My mother was gone, replaced by this new, different Angela.

In the same room, a million miles away.

Over the span of the next 14 or so years, from about 1981 until 1995, I would periodically visit Angela, trying to reintroduce myself to her and rebuild some kind of familiarity with this evasive, quiet, strange woman. It was a long walk up the steep road through the Riverview grounds to the North Lawn Unit, not knowing what to expect or if she’d recognize me or even respond. I brought her chocolate every time, hoping we might bond over food. She loved it and would gobble it down like a greedy toddler, but it was no guarantee of any connection.

I would always ask her “Do you know who I am?” On a good day, she would make eye contact, as if she was trying to figure it out. She once called me her cousin Gene (I have no idea who that is or if they existed). Once, when I told her I was her son John, she protested, saying “No! John was blonde!” I reminded her that yes, back when I was nine or ten, I’d had dirty blonde hair, but my hair had darkened since then and I was indeed her grown-up son. It was heart-breaking to have to be so patient, to work so hard to try and rebuild such an elemental connection, but I did try, for a while anyway.

Over the years, I would bring my sketchbook and ask Angela to draw for me. The first time she tried, all I got was a cat that looked like a sausage, with stick legs. I knew she had more in her, and the next time we tried, she drew a very skillful profile of a human face in one continuous line down the page, from the top of the forehead down to the chin, without stopping. I’d watched her concentrate, moving the pen very slowly and deliberately down the paper, and I was amazed. It was the first indication I’d seen that there was still somebody at home in there.

Occasionally, she’d let me hug her and tell her I loved her, but I have no way of knowing if she really understood what was happening, really felt anything, or was just playing along with this nice, friendly young man who brought her chocolates and seemed to care about her. I tried to put into this relationship whatever I could, and to get out whatever I could. I accepted that she was no longer the same woman who’d once been my mother, and was now just Angela, a woman from whom I would try to raise a smile or a laugh, or just share a moment sitting together for as long as we could, watching the sun come in through the metal screened windows. She really didn’t have anyone else. We didn’t live together, we didn’t see each other very often, and we didn’t really know each other very well, but those little moments on the ward were still there for us to share, for whatever they were worth.

Detach, let go, and accept.

I gradually detached my feelings about Angela from the concept of “mother”, and got mothering from other people who really cared about me. I accepted that my Mum had left us years before she’d ever left our home on a stretcher, and this woman in front of me was just a ghost of that person, a pale reflection, reborn in a husk of skin that looked familiar. But hers was a different brain, probably just going through the motions of staying alive.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in some very real ways, Angela continues to haunt me. Her face, voice, silliness, mania, and cold detachment echo on for me in some people whom I’ve known since her death. It’s a reminder for me to keep learning from her life – that my relationship with her continues. It’s a reminder for me that while I thought I was done with her, she may not yet be done with me.

Old Patterns never die, they just transform…

Mothers and Fathers are the archetypes for all your relationships in some way. Here are some of the lessons I learned from mine, directly and indirectly:

Bad Lessons:

Mother: Non-communicative silence means ‘I don’t care to talk to you, or perhaps I have stopped loving you. You will never know.’ (It was frustrating and sometimes terrifying.)

Father: Use your fists to defend yourself, or your family. (Fists also used on family.)

Mother: Creativity and imagination sometimes come in frantic manic bursts. (Bipolarism, depression.)

Father: Men don’t cry (and when they do, they don’t explain or share the reason.)

Mother: Emotions are scary and uncontrollable. (Little self-knowledge.)

Father: Men don’t accept the blame. Pride can be a defense.

Good Lessons:

Mother: Love of music can people together in beautiful little moments.

Father: A tough, strong or uncompromising man can still be sweet and gentle to young kids and small animals.

Mother: Grown-ups can still be child-like and silly and fun.

Father: Sometimes you just need quiet time, watching planes land at the airport.

Mother: Sometimes you have to hold your head up again and face the world, even when you feel like your time has passed, and you’ve lost everything.

Father: Honour someone you love by telling stories of their beautiful past moments. These stories show others how you loved them.

I said goodbye to Dad in 1989, just a few months after he attended my graduation from art school. I was by his side a lot of the time in his last weeks, as he gradually coughed himself to death from pneumonia. Whether one remembers him for positive moments or negative ones, it was a hard way to die. I missed saying goodbye to him by about 5 or 10 minutes, so I said goodbye to his beaten-up, bruised old body instead. He was hard to like sometimes, and easy to fear, but I cried like a baby, and soaked his hospital gown in my tears. I was glad he was out from under his suffering.

I said goodbye to Mum in an abstract, and yet very physically way. After 14 years of visiting her in Riverview, and usually having to reintroduce myself to her as her son each time (brain damage from her alcohol poisoning slow-motion suicide attempt in 1977), I just couldn’t bear to visit her very often anymore. I had the curiosity of “I wonder how she is nowadays’ conflicting with the expectation that ‘she still won’t know me’. By the ’90s, she was just a thought that I held on to – a regret I felt – as I looked east towards Port Coquitlam, at the idea of Angela. A warning of her passing came at midnight, March 1st, just as my 29th birthday came. I received a phone call from a nurse at Riverview, saying that my Mother was very sick with a flu that had transformed into pneumonia, and she might not last very long. I told the nurse I would try to come out for a visit, and she said she’d keep me informed. One week later, almost to the hour, I received the phone call saying that Mum had passed. I had never gone up to see her. I just couldn’t do it. The closest I came to contact after that was pouring her ashes into the ground at the Fraserview Cemetary. I brushed clouds of her off my hands, and felt a wave of sorrow and relief for Angela, whom I’d never really known or connected with. She’d lost everything – especially herself – and had suffered so much in her life.

God, how imperfect and flawed and damaged they were. God, how I loved them, and how I still miss them.