I will always think of the summer of 2011 as my iconic journey home. You know the type, long estranged child comes home as an adult in some cataclysmic moment in the family history. Relationships are a mix of warm moments and anger flaring with some piece of revelation leaving you to wonder what will happen to the protagonist as you see him or her driving off into the sunset. Only, I drove off in the early morning hours from my hotel room where I stayed for my final night.
My father had been diagnosed with cancer in April. For more than I decade I had not seen any of my family due to their feelings about my divorce and some other family matters I will choose not to speak of. My father did not take my divorce well. Calling home was a confusion of moments of conversations and more moments when he would set down the phone without any greeting except to tell mom, “Your daughter is on the phone.” Needless to say, I was unsure about going home. I didn’t know if my being there would be a good or a bad thing in his recovery so I kept teaching, calling home and connecting as best I could through online networks.
In June, I got home from school one day to the message that I should call him for a final farewell. In some ways, I think that was the final time I talked to my dad. For the brief moments of that call he was clear and coherent, knowing that cancer was taking his life and thinking of what mom would need once he left. For those moments, he was my dad instead of the angry man that had been in conversations far too much in the past years.
My father made it through that crisis, physically, but something in that bout of illness pushed him into dementia. Most of the time he would seem normal to the family who had lived near him all those years but at others times, the times they called dementia, an angry man would come out. This angry man would be so judgmental and closed to anything anyone would say around him. What they described sounded much like the father I had come to know in the final years of his life. It wasn’t all he was though. The loved memories fought with the fear of rejection that had become my relationship with him. I didn’t understand the dichotomy of the feelings he expressed toward me.
I had to wait until school was out to leave because my passport had been allowed to lapse during the years that my family seemed to be just fine with going on without me there. The border and the new US regulations on entry since 9-11 gave some protection from the hurt I felt at their choices to distance after my divorce. There were brief moments of contact and mom and dad did give me some help at one rough space in those years, but the distance grew. Now, to go home, I first needed to make the 12+ hour trip to Calgary to apply for an emergency passport.
I had been told that it would be at least a couple of weeks until my passport was granted so I had plans to camp with one daughter’s family and attend another daughter’s play back in Manitoba. Because of this, I had only packed for a whirlwind trip. My emergency passport was in my hand within an hour of my arrival at the consulate. By the time I neared the camping spot where I was to meet my daughter and son-in-law, I knew I would not be staying. I arrived on Friday night, but we headed home on Saturday for a day of packing.
Monday morning, July 11, I was on the road south. There is almost a surrealism when I think of the sense of guidance I felt on that journey that summer. It is a story that would fill chapters of a book if I could ever really make sense of the chasm in memories and feelings that were a part of the experience. I would hear memories from my parents that I had never heard before. I would have moments when I felt the love of the father I knew in my younger years, I would experience the anger and distrust that he had shown in the later years and dare to shift the tentative relational balance with my family. On the final day, I would gain the revelation which could affect my future and feel that final break with a person I care about.
In the end, I would leave with no real goodbye. My father’s last words to me would be. “I just wish you could help me understand.” And mine to him would simply be, with a kiss on his cheek, “I love you, dad.” Then I would turn to go, knowing I would not see him again. I had gone home knowing that I was going to help him die. Now I was leaving knowing that I had to go for him to be able to let go and take that final rest. That my medical insurance, which I had needed to use, would lapse if I didn’t get to my province again by a certain time gave me the excuse for doing what I needed to do. That day, was mine to say goodbye.
On August 7, I began my journey to Calgary. August 10th I would turn in my emergency passport and start the final stretch of my journey back to Manitoba. My destination would be the north part of the province so I chose to take the afternoon to travel up to the Drumheller dinosaur museum in the badlands of Alberta. There was now nothing more I could do for my family. I would take a few hours to rest.
I enjoyed seeing the displays in the museum and was just about to go walking out into the fossil park when I got an urgent feeling that I should be on the road. It didn’t make sense. It was only around 4 and I could get to my destination for the evening even if I left at 6. I would have time to walk. No, the urgency wouldn’t go away. “Okay,” I acquiesced, “You have been right so far on this journey. I will trust you.”
Driving north from Drumheller took me off the beaten trail or the Yellowhead onto a parallel highway with no real shoulder and little but the regular grid of dirt roads to break the monotony. A few houses and even a hamlet or two lined the way. Every now and then a car would pass but, for the most part, it was a quiet drive until my cell phone rang.
It was my brother-in-law. “Is this something I need to know?” I asked, dreading what I already knew. When he said yes, I asked him to wait until I could find a place to turn off the road. I pulled over into a side road and listened as he told me my dad had died only moments before. It was shortly after 6 p.m.
After I stopped shaking I tried to keep driving. I was unprepared for the depth of the grief I felt and barely could pass a couple grid roads before I had to pull off again. I realized I couldn’t keep going like this, that I wasn’t going to make it to the town in Saskatchewan where I had planned to stay, not unless I could pull myself together. I had to find a place where I could pull off and deal with the overwhelming emotions but all I could find was miles of side roads and tiny houses. At any of these, no one was out and around so I drove on.
I think it was only about a half hour before I saw a sign to a little hamlet that looked like it had a few houses. Maybe they would have a café or something where I could just catch my breath. If I could just glimpse one person I could ask them. I turned off the main road. There to the side of the road, in front of the fire hall, a group of people were having what seemed to be a BBQ. I would stop and ask them where the nearest café was.
I pulled off to the side across the street, took a few breaths to calm myself and stepped out of my car. Only a few steps into the street my legs collapsed right from under me and I was sitting in the middle of the road crying. Some people ran over to me and sobbing, I told them I was just looking for a place to catch my breath and why. Though some backed away from me, one woman took me by the arm and led me to her house.
Her mother had been a funeral director and had taught her about grief. Though friends of hers called to caution her about letting a stranger into the house, she gave me something light to eat and listened while I told her the craziness of the summer and the mixed up relationship I had had with my father. She opened her heart and her home knowing nothing about me but that I was in mourning. She even gave me a bed to sleep in that night knowing that I could drive no further.
I will never forget that woman for what she did for me that day. No one should need to grieve alone but to be grieving miles away from anything you know is an experience I would wish on no one. Because I followed that voice within that knows so much more than my conscious self I just happened to be within a possible drive to a town where there just happened to be a woman who understood grief and had the grace to be able to open her home to a grieving stranger. I will always be grateful.