Today is six years.
Two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four days.
You’ve missed 20% of my life, just like that. One day, you’ll have been gone from it longer than you were part of it. I can’t even bear the thought.
Time has a way of playing tricks with our mind: some days, it feels like it was just yesterday I was walking hopelessly through the halls of Sunnybrook’s ICU, the sweet smell of hand sanitizer wafting through the air. I remember the hissing and clicking of your ventilator as it pushed oxygen in and out of your lungs, its noise overshadowed only by the dozen monitors by your bedside, beeping every few moments to let us know you were still alive.
But deep down, we both know you weren’t. You left us at the side of the 401 when your car crashed and the paramedics had to revive you. I remember feeling such hope that you would recover.
In my naïve, 24-year-old mind, you were going to wake up despite what the doctors said. You would be one of those cases people talked about, the person who comes out of the devastating coma and continues on with his life. But as the days ticked on and your sedation wore off, it became clear you’d never open your eyes again. You’d never take us for dim sum. You’d never call. You’d never do anything again – except, in your last act of selflessness, become a hero to five other men. It sounds so simple, but it took me months to appreciate the impact of your gift on those other families.
The seven days in the hospital felt like an eternity – back and forth between family meetings; trying to keep all of your many friends and co-workers updated as they came by, called and emailed (you have no idea how many people were praying for you, do you?); making sure Papa and the other bees were OK; beginning to make your final arrangements; working with hospital staff to determine your eligibility for organ donation; and most importantly, spending time with you.
I remember the last time I came to see you by myself in the hospital. We were letting you go that night, because it’s what you always told us you’d want if you were ever in that terrible situation. We used to laugh about it, because the changes were so slim. “Nothing can take out your Daddy!”, you’d joke. But there was nothing funny about that horrible day in July.
You were snoozing away in your hospital bed, thanks to the help of your ventilator, and although we were inside protected from that blistering Toronto summer day, the air felt muggy. Your room was dark even with the curtains were open– I suppose that’s the benefit of having your bed in the middle of the room between two concrete walls. In any other circumstance, the plain walls and sterile bedding would have felt so cold but knowing you were lying there, completely incapacitated and without a hope of recovering made me flushed with panic. The room felt like a prison rather than a space to heal.
I stood at the foot of your bed for a moment, still in disbelief. How did a man who had little more than a cut on the side of his head have such a fatal brain injury? The patients in neighbouring beds were visibly injured – broken bones, stitches, missing limbs, bandages and monitors galore – yet their prognosis was more favourable than yours. They were going to walk out with their lives while we were about to sign the papers to end yours.
I pulled a chair up to your bedside and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the taunting beeps of your monitors. I imagined I was somewhere else, anywhere but a hospital room saying goodbye to you.
I grabbed your hand, the same hand I hung onto as a kid when we went out for walks. The same hand that high-fived me when I graduated college. The same hand that was supposed to give me away when I got married. The same hand that was supposed to one day hold grandchildren.
I squeezed it, so desperately wishing for a reaction – anything – back.
I put down your bed rail, took out my iPod and put an earbud in each of our ears. I remember you telling me you used to sing Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ to me as a little girl when you were trying to comfort me. In those final hours, it was my turn to comfort you. I turned on the song, closed my eyes and laid my head on your pillow, convincing myself you could hear it, too. I began to cry so hard my entire body shook. The realization that this would be our last time hearing this song together hit me like a freight train. When the song was over, I had covered your pillow in tears.
A few hours later, surrounded by those who loved you most and with AC/DC playing in the background, your heart flickered its final beat, perfectly in tune to the last note of Thunderstruck. That moment, for me, remains hauntingly beautiful – your final song at your AC/DC shows perfectly aligned to your final moment on Earth.
On July 14, you went from being present to a memory.
When memories are all you have, you hang onto them for dear life. In the beginning, I talked about you incessantly. I was terrified of forgetting the littlest details, the most insignificant stories. In those the first few months, I felt I was constantly chasing you – that you weren’t really gone, but just around the next corner, except I could never catch up. I found artificial comfort in the bottom of bottles and felt sheer panic from listening to the music you loved. I couldn’t take a deep breath – it’s like there was an elephant on my chest for months. A beach ball had inflated in my throat and every time someone asked me how I was, it felt like I was being strangled from the inside out. I became short tempered, withdrawn, and dependent – a far cry from the vibrant young woman you had seen just months before.
I knew losing you would be hard. I knew losing you would change everything. But I didn’t appreciate just how much. The physical impacts of grief were almost as bad as the emotional ones. Some days, I just couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed. I hurt everywhere. It was painful to breathe. My stomach ached for weeks on end. I was devastated. Then uncontrollably angry at you. I was convinced I would die from a broken heart.
But gradually, over time, the physical pain subsided. I’ve had six years to get used to this new normal: a normal where you’re untouchable, yet the memories of you are close; a normal where I can’t see you yet I know you’re always watching; a normal where nearly everything has changed except one thing: how much I miss you.
I still talk about you often; I share your stories – your funny antics, your ‘Malcolm-isms’ and your painful moments. You weren’t perfect by a long shot, but then again, none of us are. (And don’t worry, my boycott of your beloved music didn’t last long – I no longer see listening to it as torture and have instead embraced my inner rock star, belting out lyrics, completely out-of-tune, every now and again.)
You’ve missed so much in six years, Dad. Your boys have become hard-working, loyal men. You daughters have become strong, independent women. Remember how we always used to say I’d end up out west? I’m here. I’ve married an incredible man you’ll never meet but would have absolutely adored. I’m doing a job I know you’d find “really fucking cool”. I eat dim sum on the regular. I went back to school. I started skating again. I’m (painfully, slowly) writing a book. I’ve screwed up along the way – a lot – and I know you’d probably ask what the hell I was thinking at times, but I’ve gradually found my way.
I feel, for the first time in my life, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. If only you were here to see it.
We miss you, Dad. Your sisters miss you. Everyone misses you. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re gone.
In the beginning, I would have given away years of my own life just to have five more minutes with you. At one point, even 40 years seemed like a reasonable trade. Although losing you irrevocably changed me, your decisions and death have taught me a lot.
It’s bittersweet. By losing you, I’ve gained perspective I would have never known otherwise yet am so grateful for.
I know firsthand how short life is.
I know firsthand how strong I can be, because being strong in those weeks and months was the only choice I had.
I know firsthand how important it is to be surrounded by people you love during happy times, and especially during difficult ones.
I know firsthand that by simply making your wishes known to your family, you can dramatically change – and save – the lives of so many others.
I know firsthand how important it is to ask for help when you need it.
I know firsthand that sometimes the best outcomes come from making really, really hard choices.
I know firsthand how important it is to listen to what your gut is telling you.
I know firsthand that I can only control my own actions, no one else’s – including yours- no matter how badly I try.
Most importantly, I know firsthand I’ll be OK.
I survived losing you, though you’re still very much alive in our memories. We carry your legacy for you and know that those five men whose lives you positively changed forever think about you every day, too. We’re continuing to move forward, because it’s the only choice we have, each of our respective milestones coming with a pang of sadness that you aren’t here to celebrate, support, laugh and cry with us.
You may have only lived 49 years, but you crammed a hell of a lot into it and gave me a lifetime of memories. Of all the Dads in the world, I’m so glad you’re mine.
Today will be a little harder than yesterday – the milestones always are. The beach ball will reappear and I’m sure at times, I’ll fight to keep my composure but I’ll still honour you just as you would have liked: by blasting some AC/DC, making a big Scottish breakfast and continuing to make the same – and different – choices you did.
You’re desperately loved and missed everyday, Daddy.