The writing’s on the wall (literally)

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 It’s been a crazy few months (well, year): The Brit and I got engaged, ticked off a couple bucket list trips, planned a wedding, got married and moved into a new place. 

I made a promise to my Dad on his birthday last year, December 6, that I’d have a proposal done for my book by his next one. Maybe it was a bit foolish, maybe it was a bit too ambitious, but now that we’re settled in our place and my book outline is in my line of sight, I’m back at it. No excuses, no pretending it’s not on my radar – it’s smack in the middle of our living space daring me everyday to open my computer and add to my outline, finish another chapter, have the courage to bleed on the keyboard, as my favourite memoir coach so eloquently put it. 
These last few months have taught me that I hardly ever “feel” like writing. Writing isn’t a mood, it’s a choice. And one I need to make every. single. night. Sometimes I nail it on the first draft and other times it takes an army of editors. But I first need to make the choice to do it. So, here’s to diving back in full speed. 

A gift to Dad on his birthday

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 55 years young.

I say “is” because December 6 will always be my Dad’s birthday; I say “would have been” because he’s not been here to celebrate his birthday with us in five years.

The first birthday he was gone was five months after his car accident. I feared the day almost as badly as I feared the dreaded one-year anniversary.

I took the day off work, I went out with friends to do mindless Christmas shopping, and we took my Dad’s dad out for dinner at the Mandarin, my Dad’s favourite place to binge on Chinese food. We purposely left an empty chair at our table as a painful reminder of his absence.

I remember crying so hard on the way home from the restaurant that I became hysterical and had to pull over. As I was choking and gasping for air through my full-body sobs, I couldn’t stop thinking that it just wasn’t fair.

I felt so sorry for my grandfather, who was out marking his son’s birthday yet his boy wasn’t there to share it with him. I’ll never forget the sadness in his eyes or the hopeless tone of his voice. His only son was gone and he was never coming back – to him, it was a fate worse than death.

Fast forward four years and here I sit at 7 a.m. eating leftover Chinese food and thinking about my Dad. Not much has changed – he’s still gone, but the tears are under control and the cuisine is still inspired by him (although perhaps a poor choice for breakfast).

While each passing year has become more “normal”, I still miss calling him, meeting him for all-you-can-binge Chinese food and having him act surprised and grateful when my three siblings and I would pay for his dinner.

Three years ago, I started writing a book about my Dad’s passing and my subsequent journey. Yesterday, I found the query letter I sent to an agent about it – he asked for an exclusive when the manuscript was finished. I was thrilled someone was interested and started writing every day. I was convinced I would have a draft in 12 weeks.

Today, the manuscript sits at a mere 25,000 words; Dad’s death and my subsequent journey remain largely untold.

I have the support to get it done; Patti Hall is a memoir coach who has been mentoring me and subtly kicking my ass every now and then by way of “why aren’t you writing?” and “use me, I’m here!” messages.

I don’t have an answer as to why it’s not done, other than the fact that it seems daunting to do. A whole book? What if no one cares about my story? What if it never gets published?

Meeting with Patti again this week while she was in town has made me realize the biggest and scariest “what if” is “what if I just didn’t write it at all?”.

No one would know, really, except myself and a handful of others who knew I was writing. But I would know. And I know I would be so disappointed in myself if I didn’t give it a valiant effort.

So, today, on my Dad’s 55th birthday, I’m giving him the promise of a book proposal this year. I will write his story and his choices and our relationship and my journey in the hopes people will be inspired to make the same decisions and different decisions. I will submit it to agents. I will not be disappointed if it doesn’t get picked up.

OK, scratch that last bit – I’ll be disappointed, but even if it doesn’t, I did all that I could. In the meantime, I’m going to finish my chow mien and deep fried shrimp (which, by the way, are not-so-great the next morning) and put together a plan to make this happen.

Happy birthday, Daddy. You’re desperately loved and missed every year.

 

Revisiting the past: Missing out, missing Dad, missing normal

When my dad died almost five years ago, I was a very naïve 24-year-old. Having been shopping moments before I got the phone call of his accident, I was forced to grow up in a second. Seven days later, I was violently shoved from being a young, carefree young adult into a world where I was suddenly given the power to end my dad’s life. I signed the papers that ultimately did – we removed life support, knowing it’s what he would have wanted.

In the days and months that followed, I wrote letters to my Dad through a blog. Some days I was mad at him, others I was sorry for myself but every day, I missed him terribly.

With more than 50,000 words written through the blog, I’m revisiting the entries and using them as part of my book that I’ve started writing once again. It’s almost like a gift I’ve given to myself. I recorded so many details that were so important at the time but now are distant, if not completely absent, memories.

The entry below brought me right back to that stage. I remember feeling hopeless and devastated – I truly thought my grief would crush me. I wish I could go back and tell my 24-year-old self that it would get better… or at least just give her a hug.

Post title: Missing Dad, missing out, missing normal

Originally posted: October 8, 2010

Whether my days go by fast or slow, whether the weather is nice or awful, whether I feel productive or completely useless, one thing always seems to remain the same: dad is gone.

I almost feel like I’m stuck in a rut, and the more I try to get out of it, the deeper it gets. I’m spinning my tires and trying my best to get out of the hole I’m in, but no matter how hard I try, how much I rock to get moving, I’m stuck in one place. And it’s not a good one.

I keep thinking about how much dad is going to miss out on. After letting my thoughts wander for several hours last night, I thought about how much I was going to miss out on too. I’ll never experience the smile on his face and the big hug I would have gotten from telling him I got engaged. I won’t see him beam with pride as he walks me down the aisle. I won’t get any more teary Joe Cocker messages. I won’t see the delight on his face when I tell him he’s going to be a grandfather. No more Christmases, birthdays, Easters, Thanksgivings, dim sum outings or Mandarin trips. I have no reason to celebrate Father’s Day.

It’s too much.

I miss dad so much words can’t even begin to describe it. I feel like his death and the circumstances surrounding it are a huge weight on my chest. I don’t even what it feels like to take a normal breathe that isn’t constricted by the heaviness of the grief on my chest and devastation in my heart.

I feel old. I feel achy. I don’t want to have to deal with reality, but want more than anything for things to be normal again. I know there will never be such thing. At least not the normal I was accustomed to.

Dad was supposed to live to 80 and die as an old man – not a 49-year-old. He was supposed to spend his last 30 years happy, loving us, loving himself and playing in his band. He should be fishing, going to court, meeting us for food, not floating off in some other land where he’s untouchable and never to be seen or heard from again.

I pictured him sitting in an old rocking chair on a small, square deck sitting by a river’s edge at a trailer somewhere. He would still be wearing his cut off T- shirts, ugly dollar store shoes we kidded with him for buying, and the Value Village shorts he loved to brag about scoring deals on. A small radio would be playing 95.7, and a fishing pole would be close by, if not in his hand. A cold beer would touch his lips every so often and a dog would be sleeping peacefully at his feet. He was supposed to die old, at peace and when he lived his full life.

The reality of his untimely death is disturbing, and unfair. He barely had any wrinkles and was the smallest he had ever been in the 24 years I had known him. He was battling many demons. He was miserable and trying desperately to stay afloat while attempting to shake off two of the biggest weights any human can even begin to imagine. His life wasn’t close to being over. At least not to us.

I don’t know what’s worse – him being here struggling, or us struggling with the aftermath of his passing.

 

A (motivational) kick in the derrière

Sometimes we just need a swift kick in the butt to get motivated again.
For me, that proverbial kick came from a meeting with my memoir/writing coach Patti Hall.
She’s here on the west coast for a trip and we had the chance to meet up for a drink and brunch while I was visiting Whistler for the night. (By the way, if you haven’t stayed at the Chateau Fairmont, I highly recommend it.)
Let’s back track: about three years ago, I decided I want to become an author. Yes, just like that. After receiving a positive response to a query from a publisher, I started writing. I was connected to Patti through a colleague and we began working together. I’d write, she’d provide feedback and help me make my writing more meaningful for the reader.
I had a lofty goal of finishing my manuscript in six months. In reality, I had a better chance of becoming a brain surgeon than I did finishing nearly 80,000 words in 180 days, but I tried nonetheless.
Somewhere along the way, I got distracted. School picked up, my marriage ended, I moved across the country and worst of all, I started doubting my story.
My memoir is about my Dad’s death and how I coped…. Or, well, didn’t. When I first found out he was in a car accident, I was optimistic we’d be taking him home. My Dad was a survivor – surely a single-vehicle car accident wasn’t going to be it for him.
Sadly, it was.
Taking him home’ took on another meaning – a year and eight months to the day after he died, my sister and I stood on the river bank in beautiful Loch Lomond Scotland and scattered his ashes where his parents’ remains were also laid to rest. Born in that beautiful country, he always said it was his true home and that one day, he wanted to return there for good.

My Dad’s final resting place
In that year-and-a-half from his accident to when we went to Scotland, my life was in constant chaos. I was 24 when he died and thrust into the position of making decisions about whether he was going to live or die when all I wanted to do was go shopping with my friends. I wanted the innocence and ignorance that came with being a young adult but in a split second, it was taken away from me with a single phone call. I grew up in an instant and also took on the role of protecting my younger siblings in the absence of my father.
I ended up taking care of them and completely ignoring myself, which resulted in my catapulting into depression and trying to find solace at the bottom of many bottles. I spent months drinking, crying, going through his things and torturing myself with AC/DC – one of his favourite bands. I’d bawl the entire way to work each day and end up pulling over on the side of the road more than once on the drive home because I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. At one point, I just wanted to die – I couldn’t imagine it ever getting any better.
During this same time, I got engaged and was trying to plan a wedding, my grandfather’s health was declining most certainly because his heart was broken after burying his only son and I was in the process of changing jobs.
Then five months to the day he passed, I received something thatchanged everything –  letters from my Dad’s double lung recipient and family members. They spoke of the incredible impact my Dad’s gift of organ donation had on their lives. While they reiterated how my Dad saved their family member’s life, they had no way of knowing their letters had also saved mine.
Over the next 18 months, I got my demons under control, became an advocate for organ and tissue donation, sharing my Dad’s story – a way of free therapy, I suppose – in hopes of encouraging others to make the same choice he did. His story was shared in three countries, entered into a film festival in the states and appeared in several major papers. During the same time, I got engaged, I got married, I enrolled in university to finish my degree and I was finally able to take my Dad home…. in a nutshell.
Fast forward two years to Sunday when Patti sat across from me on a patio in Whistler and listened to me talk about how I didn’t think my experience was good enough or would mean anything. My Dad’s been gone four-and-a-half years now, although it feels like yesterday most days, and so much has happened – my ex separated and sold our house, I moved in with my sister, I moved across the country, I got my first place, I met someone new…. All things I would have never imagined happening a mere two years ago.
I shared with her that I was terrified I’d spend all this time writing something that no one would give a shit about, especially since so much time had passed.
“Alyshia, your story deserves to be shared.”
I’m not sure what about those seven words motivated me, but I suddenly feel like I can tackle it again. Maybe it’s my impending visit to Scotland to “visit” my Dad this summer, maybe I’ve just gotten to a place where I feel relatively stable for the first time in a long time, maybe it’s just because I want to – need to – write.  
So, with Patti’s support, I’m going to try this again. It may not be the greatest story ever told and it may never make it to the desk of a publisher, but it’s my story and damn it, I owe it to myself to write it… one page at a time.