It was 1983 and Christmas was coming, but Dad’s heart attack came first on December 21st. It was a terrifying wake-up call.
He fell out of bed at maybe 5:30 or 6am, all tangled up in his sheets. We were on Christmas break, just a few days before the 25th. I think most of my shopping was already done and I’d even gotten the tree up too. I was seventeen.
It was that built-up feeling, that low-level anticipation that accumulates around you in the air, in the clouds of people’s laughs dissipating as they talk about it. It builds up under car tires on the street, and in the folds of coat sleeves bringing bags home from the mall. Christmas excitement, and with it, Christmas stress.
So maybe something big finally 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 shaky. He sounded afraid and desperate, and I found him laying on the floor tangled up in his sheet, telling me to call an ambulance. My sister heard us, and we freaked out and 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!” Dad must have been at least 240 pounds and over 6 feet tall. All the Love men were much bigger than me. In my shock at seeing him so helpless, I was proud of his size.
Whether agreed or not I don’t know, but my sister stayed behind at the house and I went in the ambulance with Dad. His eyes were wide and he was soaked in sweat, and probably frozen stiff in the sub-zero morning air. It couldn’t have been two degrees outside – probably more like minus two.
In Emergency at Burnaby General, I stayed with him for an hour or more. He looked at me with the scaredest face I’d ever seen. It was his true self, which perhaps I’d never seen before. His face said “I’m scared to hell” but his voice said “I love you son”. I tried not to cry and to not let my voice shake, but he saw and knew that I felt the same way he did. We held hands the way brothers do, with that underhanded grip that looks like the beginning of an arm wrestle. We clenched hands tight and I told him I loved him too. He said “I’ll be okay. You go home and take care of your sister”, so that’s what I did because I always did what Dad told me to do. Right then I didn’t know what else to do. I needed him to tell me.
I left his ER bed and phoned Kim at home, and through her crying and my shaky words, we discussed what Dad had told me, and I told her I was coming home.
When I walked out the doors from Emerg, I felt a wave of fainting and I jammed my back up against the building as my legs gave out. I slid down into a crouch as everything went grainy, snowy blue, and a bell rang hard in my ears. I gasped for breath and waited until my head cleared and the ringing stopped. It was too much. I had to get home.
I don’t remember a Christmas that year. I remember drinking with my friends in our livingroom and a lot of awkward fucking silence. The townhouse was the same space it had always been, but Dad’s absence was a huge damned elephant. That first night, my sister and I each spent the evening at different friends houses, talking and being consoled. I went to my friend Jamie’s and drank with his family. His mum cried for my sister and me, calling us babies. Her slightly drunk but sincere motherliness has always stuck with me. Kim and I had each found somewhere to be around friends.
I began listening to “Pink Floyd, The Wall” on my Walkman every night. I’d lay in bed too wound up to sleep, and would live through the scenes from The Wall, with all those sad Father and Mother images and the character of poor Pink, the lost boy, losing his identity and losing his mind. I was afraid of the future and beginning to hate the world more than ever. Other times, I just felt lifeless and depressed.
During the day I was the dutiful son, making daily or bi-daily visits to the hospital or to the grocery store. I kept shit running at home the best a responsible teen could. During the night, I felt alone, bleak, and lost. I was untethered and a big part of me was depressed and stressed. I wished for everything to just be over. I wished for someone to love me, and help me feel secure. Life sucked more than it ever had before, and I couldn’t imagine a future.
Dad gradually got better over the weeks, then months. Then he got worse (four strokes) and did eventual, continuous rehab until he was able to move and kind of control his left arm a little and speak more clearly. It was a long, slow process of not knowing what the next day would bring, but I was really proud of his progress and of how hard he’d worked to literally get back on his own two feet. His face showed that he was proud too. I will always have gratitude to the Activation Ward in BGH for the therapy and support that they gave my Dad.
A counselor at the hospital told me that I was handling events that adults twice my age could not, and this also made me feel proud. But I was also feeling depressed, dog-tired, and emotionally lost in my life.
I had Dad’s debit card and he told me his pin, so I kept the house stocked with food and wrote cheques for him to sign to pay the bills. He always trusted me. Still, my sister and I were just teens – kids really – so Dad never knew that we partied our asses off in the house, or that I sat in his recliner drinking beer and playing The Doors really loud on his stereo. The cat was away, and the mice were 15 and 17. The cops came only once and warned us to behave ourselves. After that, we settled down, but my poor gentle neighbours did hear a lot of shit through the walls, I’m sure
Dad had always smoked about a pack a day, and he drank every night. He never really did any exercise, never had friends over, and never did anything but work. I also believe he harboured a lot of guilt for the abuse he gave my mother, and her emotional collapse into depression, and the other forms of abuse he visited on us.
By the time of his heart attack in ’83, my Mum had been a patient in Riverview and a ward of the province for a couple of years already. Dad had basically stopped going in with us to visit her by that point, claiming back pain. He would just sit in the car, wait for us, and smoke. I resented him for it, and thought he was an awful coward for not going in with us. I felt like I had to compensate for him. I did not understand what he might have been struggling with emotionally. This stress was probably a major factor in Dad’s health collapse.
Looking back on him and his pride and ego,I’ll bet Dad felt like his family was a failure – maybe his failure. And in many ways, we were a failed family, but that was never solely his fault, even if it was his burden to bear. I won’t forgive him for things he did, but I will still feel compassion for his suffering and near-death collapse. I still respect his strength and stubborness.
When Dad did finally come home again from the hospital, he was walking with a cane, holding his head up, but really he was kind of broken-down and had a hard time noticing things on his left side, like a few of our well-meaning neighbours, who awkwardly tried to welcome him back.
Within a month or two, he went on a serious drinking binge and caused himself a bad stroke, and went back to hospital. He just couldn’t stop drinking. He rehabbed again, and finally quit smoking and drinking for good, but also fell down in the shower in hospital and fractured his hip (plus, had another stroke). He never walked again after that, confined to a wheelchair, and settled into a private hospital. I didn’t let him go, but visiting him became one of my weekly errands. He never came home again.