In Pursuit of Happiness, #8:  My Mom, Bestie Time (again), and Music (for real this time)

My Mom: Sunday is the only day of the week where I can actually chill out for more than five seconds at a time, and I spend a lot of it with my mother and sister. I also stay over at their place on Sunday nights, because it makes the task of getting to the gym for a 6AM on Monday morning much easier to accomplish.

At 5:20 this morning when I went to say good morning to my mom before getting ready to leave, my mother got out of bed and made me a smoothie to take on the go – banana, mango, and yogurt, to be exact, with just enough milk to thin it out and make it easy to drink from a mason jar on the metro.

While carrying around our ridiculously fat cat (no, really – he’s about 18lbs) and watching me scurry about getting my stuff together, Mom reminded me to take an umbrella because it’s going to rain today, to walk carefully because it might be icy outside, to bring back the mason jar I borrowed for my smoothie, and to call once in a while during the week.

Like any adult offspring, I just smiled and nodded and said, “Of course,” to every reminder. But even though I think I’m old enough now not to need reminding about things like this (well, except for the one about the mason jar, as I’m a kleptomaniac when it comes to food storage containers), I don’t mind when Mom does it. That’s just her way of saying she loves me, after all.

Bestie Time (again): Any time with good friends is time well spent, but time spent with my best friends is priceless and wonderful to me. Being one of those ridiculously busy people, choosing to spend some of my few free hours with friends is one of the ways I say how much I love them – but I realize too that the fact that they accommodate my strange and unpredictable schedule to be able to spend time with me is their way of saying they love me, too.

One of my best friends came over for dinner on Saturday night with a fantastic bottle of red (Apothic 2013). After a long week at work for the both of us and a particularly rough one for me in terms of physical health, it was a welcome kind of socializing: low-key, one-on-one, and at home. I was actually pretty bummed about missing the anniversary dinner of another friend of mine, but being able to have company on Saturday night nonetheless really re-energized this burned-out introvert.

It’s hard to believe we’ve already known each other for six years and, like the small handful of people I do consider my closest friends now, I really can’t imagine my life without him. It’s not just because he’s fantastic company and knows how to pick a really good bottle of wine, or that he’s a gym person too who’s working on his own transformation. He’s one of the funniest, most socially intelligent, caring, and supportive people I’m lucky enough to know and even luckier to call my friend.

Music (for real this time): After my last breakup in early 2015, I didn’t torture myself by lying on the couch eating ice cream out of the bucket while sob-singing along to all of “our” songs. In fact, the music on my phone underwent one of the biggest purges of its history so that all I had left on it were songs that were upbeat, empowering, and carried no connection whatsoever to the relationship that had just ended. This handful of songs carried me through 2015’s changes and transformations; they were there for every step I took on the treadmill, every plate I added to the bar, every drop of sweat I shed, and every ounce I lost last year (and also every muffin, piece of cake, chocolate bar, and Tootsie Roll I begrudgingly passed up).

My workout playlist was literally the only music I listened to for all of 2015. A couple of weeks ago, I received a one-year subscription to Apple Music as something of a late present, and I decided to dive back into my lost love of music. (This came up in last week’s edition of “In Pursuit of Happiness,” actually, when I shared with you the exchange I had with one of my good friends about Poison and, mainly, Bon Jovi.)

Having very quickly overdosed on downloading all the music I truly love, I found I didn’t want to hear just the old familiar sounds of the music I’ve always rocked out to. I wanted to dive into something new and discover more artists whose songs and sounds would maybe help shape and define this newest version of myself that I’ve been working on.

Thank goodness then, then for two things. The first is the NPR Music app, whose alternative rock stations introduced me to the likes of Screaming Females, The Frights, The New Basement Tapes, Cage the Elephant, Beach House, and The New Tarot. But something equally fun as discovering new music on your own is having good friends recommend things to you – which is why the second thing is that there are the judgey-ass music nerds in my life, and in particular two of them.

You’ve already met one (in last week’s Happiness post) and the other is a guy I work with at Job2 (he’s in a band with another person we work with). What they both have in common, besides the privilege-chore of knowing me, is an uncanny ability to recommend artists that are consistently good. Even though there’s almost no overlap in what they recommend to me whenever I bother them for music that they haven’t posted on Facebook and even though they’ve never actually met, I think it would be really interesting and entertaining to put them in the same room and listen to them discuss music together.

The former is arguably more judgmental than the latter but both are equally knowledgeable about what’s going on in the underground and who you should be listening to from down there. My current favourites from them are Automelodi, Antigone, and Three Trapped Tigers, and I have a long list scribbled onto a Post-It somewhere in my agenda of more that I should apparently give a chance. And I’m looking forward to doing exactly that this week.

By the way, if you don’t have any judgey-ass music nerds in your life, I highly recommend you go befriend at least one. Listening to their sighs and observing their eye-rolls at your music, sitting through their rants about the mainstream, and enduring the litanies in which they wax poetic about artists nobody knows about is well worth your effort for all the goodness they’ll bring to your musical life. Trust me, I know things.

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So until next week, tell your parents or parental figures you love them, have a cup of coffee with your best friend, and tune into some artists you’ve never heard before – because that’s what I did this week and I wouldn’t be sharing it if it hadn’t succeeded in bringing some happiness to my life!

Holding on to what I’ve got

At various points in my life, I’ve felt like certain songs defined exactly what I was going through at that exact phase of my life. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon before and we all have a mixtape of songs that for one reason or another we felt were all about ourselves.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what song defined my life at the end of 2015, but I can tell you what happened and how I emerged in 2016 to be howling “Livin’ on a Prayer” into my hairbrush while powerstancing on my bed.

In the last few months of 2015, I actually went through a crisis of faith. Having already gone through similar experiences twice before, you’d think I would have figured out how to prevent them from happening again – especially with all the tools and formation I received from growing up in a devout Catholic household steeped long in theology, philosophy, and Catechism. Having faith was just as normal to us as breathing and the reminder to “just keep praying” was heard as often as “clean your room.”

But I was and still sometimes am a spoiled and rebellious child, and when things don’t go my way I get upset with God. And, depending on what didn’t turn out the way I wanted and how it didn’t turn out, I can get pretty temperamental and stubborn. Yes – right up to the point of throwing in the towel on my faith and going off to a dark corner to sulk and ignore God. “You gave me free will,” I once said in a Parthian shot to Him, “so I’m going to use it the way I want to.”

This last year in particular, on the two bookending occasions of 2015 that broke my heart, the pain I really encountered after abandoning my post at the Foot of the Cross was far greater than the pain I thought I’d had while abandoning myself to the Lord. During Advent, a season in the Liturgical year during which the rest of the Christian world is preparing to greet the Holy Child at Christmas, the hours I once spent on prayer were given over to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (No, really — I think I cried more in 2015 than I ever have in all the other years of my life put together.) For the first time in many years I didn’t receive Communion at Christmas Mass or on New Year’s Day, and for the first time ever I found myself really considering just breaking off from Catholicism altogether and giving up entirely on religion.

But I couldn’t jump off that side of the ledge upon which I teetered for many weeks, because if there was one thing I learned from my human father it was that even if your faith is in shreds, if you can find a piece of it that’s still big enough to hold on to you really should. And if there was one thing I learned how to do in 2015, it was how to look at something for what it really was and discern if it really ought to be in my life – to use logic and rationale instead of just blind faith to figure stuff out.

I’m definitely no expert at it because hey, I kind of just started doing it, but I’m beginning to at least get enough of a handle on it to start using this skill more often in my life. And when I took that long, hard look at myself on Epiphany Sunday, I realized I was a little too good at letting go: too good, because up until now the rejection, betrayal, or pain from one person was enough to make me let go of everyone in my life – including God.

After all, pure logic would dictate that if I believed God put people into my life for some unknown but good reason, then I should believe He took some of them out of my life for an equally unknown but supposedly still good reason. Along that same line of thought, twisted logic would say that if I wasn’t happy with anything, including God, I should just chuck it all overboard. But that didn’t make sense to me when I thought about it, because in a way that was saying I believed in free will but only when it was convenient – in other words, only when good things happened – and that whenever one of my choices, even a good one, cut me to the core it wasn’t on my hands but on God’s.

Once I figured that out, I spent most of Epiphany Sunday this year in dialogue with myself about all of this. I moved through the day talking myself through all the reasons why I kept abandoning my Catholicism when relationships didn’t work out, when I lost meaningful and formative friendships, or when I didn’t succeed at something I set out to do. I tried to determine why failed relationships and soured friendships had the effect of pulling me away from God so much to the point where the inevitable crash-and-burn in these instances unfailingly results in me uprooting myself from my Catholicism and putting my relationship with God on hold while I try to deal on my own.

The answer, in a nutshell, was that my efforts for others were often fuelled by fear – of being left behind, inadequate, forgotten, or expendable; of being seen as imperfect or ordinary; of being perceived as too outspoken and needy. I bent over backwards for many people who, in retrospect, I can now see as people who took me for granted, overlooked me anyway, or didn’t appreciate my acts of love beyond seeing them as things that got done for them.

Now, this is not to say that every past experience was wholly negative. In every relationship and friendship I’ve had that’s now just a memory, there really are good times. But the pain of the bad times and my own selfishness prevented me from keeping what was good and finding solace in the blessings I had received in being with those people. And because I couldn’t see the blessings I’d been given, I could not see God’s goodness – and so I abandoned Him, too, when I abandoned those relationships.

Before evening Mass on Epiphany Sunday, I went to Confession for the first time in many months and, perhaps for the first time in many years, I made it a good and thorough one. (I apologise profusely to the rest of the line – but if they haven’t experienced this kind of Reconciliation before I hope one day they will, because such a Confession can be one of the most beautiful and liberating experiences in life.) After I did my Penance I remained in prayer, taking the time to be in conversation with the Father I had ignored for so long to ask him for the grace I needed to do three important things.

One To rebuild and strengthen the good relationships that had been damaged by conflict with and fallout from others, because these were the people who stuck by me when I was too selfish and too wrapped up in my own pain to see the gifts of comfort they were trying to give me.

Two To see which connections in my life were damaging and toxic to the good relationships I was trying to heal and repair, and to eliminate them from my immediate sphere of concern – but without malice and without anger.

Three: To learn how to recognize good people when they came into my life as people intended to enrich my experiences and bring out the best in me – people who would inspire me through their own ways of giving to give of my time, talent, and treasure to others not for my own security and assurance, but for the greater good and well-being of others.

My father taught me to believe and to have faith, but my life experiences have taught me to question and discern, and writing has taught me that the simplest questions lead you to the most complete answers. So if I still believe in God and still have faith, then what I have to do with it is ask myself: what has God given me, who has God given me, why these blessings have been put into my life, where I can use them to fix my life, and how I can use them to bring joy into the lives of others?

All three things have been going rather well since Epiphany Sunday, and I’m glad to say that the third in particular has already brought blessings into my life in the form of new friends who encourage me to bring forward what’s best about myself and inspire me to share my authentic self with them and the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to connecting more often with them and to building up strong friendships with these incredible individuals. I truly do believe their paths crossed mine at this moment in time for good reasons, and I know that it’s up to me to make something good come out of these encounters and connections. Some of them believe in the same things I do and others believe in very different things, but I appreciate them and love them all the same because they each bring out the same good qualities and talents in me I’ve ignored or kept hidden until now.

So how does this all lead to me singing Bon Jovi into a hairbrush while standing in a powerstance on my bed, and why is “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song that defines my life of renewed faith, hope, and love?

Well, even though Bon Jovi didn’t mean it as a song of praise, it rather succinctly sums up how I’m moving forward with my life: holding on to what I’ve got, understanding that what I do have really is quite a lot, and remembering that inasmuch as I can and should take agency of my own life I do need my faith and keep praying. I can’t live on just a prayer indefinitely, but when everything else disappears there’s always a way to find it all again through keeping my faith.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #3: Games, Sightseeing, and Home Cooking

With it being the holidays, as well as first Christmas I’ve spent with more than two other members of my family under one roof, I’ve had a lot to be happy about this past week – but I haven’t had much time to write about any of it, because…well, it’s our first family Christmas since 2009!

While this week’s edition of In Pursuit of Happiness will be short but sweet (like everyone in my family, with the exception of my six-footer brother-in-law whose extra height just means more space for total awesomeness), the rest of the good things that I’ve experienced during this holiday will provide more than enough material for the next few posts I’m working on.

Have a great and happy week!

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Playing games with my family: All of the adults are over twenty-five and the child among us is eleven-almost-twelve-but-really-going-on-forty, but in this family age has never been an acceptable reason to stop playing. My nephew taught my oldest sister and me how to play Ticket to Ride this afternoon, and as I’m writing this he’s reading through the instructions for Risk in preparation for a family showdown. My brother, nephew, and I have been packing Nerf heat all around the house to defend ourselves against ambushes from one another.

As an adult, I think play is a refreshing and integral part of my vacation routine – especially when my version of a vacation is hauling off to the middle of “flyover country” to spend time in suburban Ohio with my nephew, middle sister, and brother-in-law. Good, clean, wholesome family fun that makes memories for when we’re old and grey is always an excellent way to pass the time on vacation, especially if it’s been raining buckets all day.

City tours with my brother-in-law: Ever since our first family trip to Montréal in 2001, my brother-in-law’s skills as a tour guide have been indispensable to our family fun time on any trip we’ve taken.   This guy is an excellent tour guide, and even during today’s bout of rain he managed to make a car-bound tour of downtown Cincinnati and Hyde Park pretty interesting. What makes his tours so special is that he knows exactly what to say about the city that will interest the passengers in his car, which means nobody has a chance to doze off to some long litany of census information.

Home-cooking, sister style: My favourite second sister is a complete and utter magical genius fairy in the kitchen. Those of you who follow me on FaceTwitGram will be well aware of this fact by now, but I can’t resist tipping my hat off to her here.

Eating while on vacation is something that tends to affect most people by causing either complete abandon or paralyzing fear, especially when it comes to going on holiday to the United States. But whenever I come to Cincy to see my sister and her family I know that, with the exception of literally only a couple of restaurant options, the food I’m going to be eating under her roof will be wholesome, homemade, and perfectly aligned with my diet. I never have to worry about sacrificing exceptional food for the sake of my food plan, and I never have to worry if my annoying food photographs will turn out, either.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #2: Parody, Comedy, and Sisterhood

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and Monday saw me dashing through the rain from one job to the other with no time in between for anything but a granola bar – a thankfully rare occurrence – which means this week’s dose of happy is a day late.

I’ll have to work on sticking to my self-imposed writing schedules in the new year.

 

1. Yelping with Cormac: After two years of having The Road by Cormac McCarthy recommended to me by a friend, I finally bought it a few months ago. A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading it. The recommendation came with a disclaimer – “Don’t read it if you’re even just remotely moody; it’s so bleak and you’ll be depressed” – that went largely ignored when I sat down with a cup of tea to read it.

This friend will tell you that my catchphrase is, “Trust me, I know things,” and I would have probably listened to his disclaimer if he had quoted me at the end of it. And yes, this is me trying to shift the blame a bit because it’s rare that I’m challenged so much by the atmosphere of a novel that I can’t read it in a straightforward and timely manner.

About halfway through The Road, I stumbled upon an unexpected trove of humor that made getting through the second half of the novel so much easier: Yelping with Cormac.

Those of you who are familiar with any of McCarthy’s works will know that “hilarious” and “light” are not adjectives found anywhere near this writer’s name, but as a spoof-homage to him Yelping with Cormac is a hilarious and light parody of Cormac McCarthy’s distinctive style. It’s a fantastically accurate mirror of his particular way with words, and yet when the Cormac Touch is applied to a review of Urban Outfitters or the Apple Store it becomes a new kind of magic altogether.

Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.

2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: I’m really picky with my television shows, especially when it comes to comedy, and I don’t own a television – which is why I’m always rather late to the party for any show that started its run in the last five years. However, thanks to Netflix, I’m fully on board (and caught up) with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I pay close attention to the credits that roll over the opening scenes of an episode, and when I saw Phil Lord and Christopher Miller right there in the pilot I knew I would enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They’re the guys behind Clone High and The Lego Movie, to name my two particular favourite Lord Miller projects.

But it’s not just the Lord Miller touch that makes this series highly enjoyable. In a knee-deep morass of New York cop shows that are heavy on the dark drama of big city crimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a much-needed step up onto the dry ground of fresh perspective and new storytelling. If you were to find a Venn diagram of cop shows, ensemble comedies, and real-world farce, you’d see Brooklyn Nine-Nine right at the middle where all the best bits of each genre come together.

3. The Following Quote and My Oldest Sister:

“From the earliest times, the custom of breaking bread together has been symbolic of sharing and accepting and loving one another. A ‘companion’ is one with whom we eat bead…to eat together is to love. The Noche Buena feast, after going to Midnight Mass, ought to be one of the most beautiful Christmas symbols. We pray together and then we eat together…because we love each other.”
– Father Galdon, SJ

Of course there’s a story here. Because of my work schedule and company policies regarding vacation time during peak periods, I’m actually stuck in Montreal until Christmas morning. It was rather upsetting at first because this will be the first Christmas in many years that most of my family will be under one roof for the holidays, and I was faced with the prospect of spending a very quiet and very lonely Christmas Eve on my own.

With our mother away since American Thanksgiving and our schedules taking us all over the place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my oldest sister and I haven’t had the opportunity this year to decorate the family nest or even come together over our beloved Advent wreath once a week. Add that to the fact that Montreal is still waiting for a proper holiday snowfall, and you can probably see why Christmas Eve this year was starting to look like a scene out of The Road.

That is, until my favourite oldest sister told me she would fly out with me on Christmas morning.

So, while I might not get the magic of Christmas Eve with my nephew and the rest of my family, I won’t be alone during Christmas Mass and I won’t be sipping a lonely cup of hot instant coco in a strange hotel room at the airport. I’ll be welcoming the Holy Child at Mass and then sitting down at our old, worn dining table to toast His arrival with my sister.

This, our hymn of grateful praise.

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, which entails most of what’s involved in American Thanksgiving, minus the crazed, murderous shopping spree that follows once the nation awakens from its food coma. There’s a long weekend during which we all flock to one nest or another to eat our way through mountains of food, raft down rapids of drink, and enjoy the bounty of our first-world lives.

Because my favourite first brother’s birthday is always around Canadian Thanksgiving, we never really celebrated the holiday proper until our family found itself scattered across the continent. (Alas, my favourite second sister and her family had to reprogram themselves to call this weekend “Columbus Day” and wait until late November to gorge upon the cornucopia.) We’ve never really been a family for turkey on this particular holiday, preferring to leave that magnificent fowl for Christmas and indulge upon other game instead in October. This year we’re roasting up two brace of Cornish game hens (we always take care to e-nun-ci-ate the name of this particular bird).

As for dessert during this autumn feast – well, we’ve never been a family for pumpkin pie, either; I myself am in adamant opposition to the craze of pumpkin spice. Just because it’s fall doesn’t mean the entire culinary world has to undergo a mass apocolocyntosis. But I digress – we are perfectly content with the other common fruit of fall, the humble apple.  Good thing we enjoy them immensely, too, for here in Quebec we’re blessed with a countryside bursting with a variety of the pomme, and we’re equally blessed to have the chance to pick them ourselves. Orchards in all directions off the Island open their weathered gates to eager harvesters every year – and this year, we walked among them.

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A beautiful view at Vergers et Cidrerie Denis Charbonneau (Mont-St-Gregoire, Quebec)

Having recently proven my own ability to host a “company meal” entirely on my own without setting anything on fire or making anyone sick, I was tasked with this year’s Thanksgiving dessert. This was probably also due to the fact that going apple picking was my idea, but in any case I spent my evening carefully prepping for a deep-dish apple pie for tomorrow’s lunch.  Yes, taste-testing was involved at several stages along the way.

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From peeling and coring these babies by hand to making the pastry from scratch, you can bet your bottom dollar that the apple pie will be freakin’ worth it!

Whilst preparing pie crust from scratch this evening, I was also watching a BBC documentary series wherein two British media personalities explore culinary history by eating historically-accurate dishes while living and dressing to period standards. It’s absolutely hilarious and brilliant, and it’s made me rather thankful to be living in this day and age.  But my gratitude goes beyond the fact that I’ve been spared from Baroque France’s aspic-and-vegetable recreations of architectural landmarks or Tudor England’s sheep and calves served a pedibus usque ad caput (warning: do not Google translate if you are weak of stomach, as this was literally how they consumed these animals).

I am much more grateful for more than just the fact that I live in a time when my diet can be balanced, varied, and wholesome.  More specifically —

“For the joy of human love:  
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above;
For all gentle thoughts and mild —
Lord of all, to You we raise
This, our hymn of grateful praise.”

          — Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth”

— for indeed, of all the things for which I am grateful, my family and my friends top my list, followed closely by my health, gainful employment, four walls and a roof over my head, clothes and shoes in my closet, and (because Canada is a week away from a federal election) the fact that I am a citizen of a country that allows all its age-of-majority citizens to vote.

I am thankful for the gifts of faith, hope, and love, as well as the opportunities I am given every day to develop them in my own life. I am thankful for the talents I have been given as well as having many ways by which I might share them with others. In turn, I am equally thankful for the talents of others, and the ways they choose to share those talents with me.

I am thankful for everyone I have met who has taught me something and I am thankful for everyone who has stood by me through thick and thin, supporting me through the worst to celebrate with me during the best.

As the nights grow longer, as the temperature gets colder, and as the pumpkin spice craze continues to sweep the nation, I raise a freshly picked apple (Cortland? Liberty? Sparta? I can’t remember what’s what in my giant bag anymore) to you all and toast everyone around the table:  may your hands, working and toiling in the lives of your loved ones, be blessed by the Hands that put us all here in the first place.

As long as we’ve got each other

My oldest brother got married this past weekend, and for the first time since our father’s passing my four older siblings and I were in the same place.  It’s always a bit strange seeing us together, because the time that passes in between such events is always significantly long enough for a few big changes to have happened for some (if not all) of us.

Hindsight convinces me time and time again that, had we been raised by different parents, after a certain point we might have never spoken to one another again.  All of us have always had big personalities, and while we were growing up those personalities sometimes caused family time to descend into emotional anarchy.

Yet here we are – all of us finally in our adult lives, filling out those personalities with maturity and respect for one another.  I have to point out that our sisters, being several years older than my brothers and I, made it to this point ages ago while we three younger siblings were still figuring out the basics.  But now that we have all been living in the grown-up world for several years and making our separate ways through it, perceptions have changed, and we can now see each other for who we really are and appreciate more the traits in each other that we previously took for granted.  And not only that – we have also come to see facets of our personalities that we never noticed before, both in each other and ourselves.

The night of the rehearsal dinner, the five of us recreated the sibling portrait that was photographed twenty years ago.  Looking at the two photos side by side, it makes me laugh and warms my heart each time.  We’re definitely all different, but in little ways we’re all the same.  The original photo captured those big personalities in our younger selves, and the recreation captured those same personalities expressed and handled by more mature and grown-up people.

If there is one thing that I took away from this whirlwind wedding weekend, it was the utmost importance of my siblings and the presence of each one of them in my life.

These are the first minds that taught me how to see the world from different perspectives and to think for myself.  These are the hands that slap sense to me as well as soothe my wounds. These are the hearts that love me even when I am not the least bit likable; the arms that catch me when I fall; the voices that answer late-night, cross-country phone calls.  These are the smiles that brighten up every room and the wits that brighten every conversation.

We might not always like each other, but we do always love each other.  And I know that I can count on my siblings to be there for me and to stand with me on the day when it will be my turn to bring a new brother into their hearts, and that they will help be bring a new son into our mother’s.

 Family

My father, my ink, and my inheritance

On the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.

I was not yet twenty-two when my father passed away on a cold February morning two days after his fifty-seventh birthday.  I was awakened by the sound of the ringtone I had assigned to my grandfather’s mobile, and the moment I heard it I knew that something was wrong.  He never called me from his mobile unless there was something amiss.  The moment I answered the call, I knew exactly what it was, and suddenly there was a tremendous weight on my young, irresponsible, and selfish shoulders:  “Please call your siblings in Vancouver and let them know,” my grandfather said.  “We have to speak with the medical team – they just arrived.”

To be the one to tell three of my four older siblings that our father had passed away was the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do, and it had to happen before I could leave my own apartment and walk the five blocks to my parents’ home in order to do what I could.  But I had no idea what had to be done.  Twenty-one years on this earth prepares one for absolutely nothing, especially when it comes to the task of laying a parent to rest, and all that such a task entails.  The following quote pretty much sums up the entire experience of being a child who is suddenly faced with this ordeal –

 “What happens when the light first pierces the dark dampness in which we have waited?  We are slapped and cut loose.  If we are lucky, someone is there to catch us and persuade us that we are safe.  But are we safe?  What happens if, too early, we lose a parent – that party on whom we rely for only…everything?  Why, we are cut loose again and we wonder, even dread, whose hands will catch us now.”

I have to say, with no small amount of amazement and gratitude, that I was lucky.  I was lucky because I had my brothers and sisters to lean on – emotionally while I waited for them to arrive, and physically once they did.  I was lucky because my grandfather was there to help me console my mother.  I was lucky because my mother had passed on to me some the tempered steel that is her willpower.  I was lucky because I had friends who let me know that I was in their thoughts and hearts, no matter how far away they were.

But most of all I was lucky because I am, after all, my father’s daughter.

Fathers are not only role models for their sons:  they are their daughters’ first heroes as well.  My father’s body – frail and debilitated as it was by Parkinson’s, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and a heart attack – housed an indomitable spirit and active mind.  Some of us have trouble getting up in the morning because we haven’t yet had a cup of coffee, or we went to bed too late.  My father literally had trouble getting out of bed in the morning because his body fought against him every day.  But each and every morning, he woke up and faced a day of intense physical suffering without so much as a peep of complaint.

That is extraordinary bravery and strength in an ordinary life.  And that is always how I will remember my father – as a brave, strong man who, despite his physical afflictions, lived a life of faith, hope, and love for the sake of his family.

I have only a small measure of my father’s profound faith, and mine is shaky at best.  I am cynical and jaded, and have been known in the past to consider love as being both arduous and futile.  But being my father’s daughter means I have more of him in me than I think or than is outwardly recognisable.  I may not have had much time with him, but I have a lifetime ahead to appreciate and treasure his legacy.

It is a simple legacy – but then again, “all the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word.”  In my father’s case, there are four words that will always come to mind when I think of him.

Bravery.  Fortitude.  Perseverance.  Strength.

And so, on the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.  It is not a tattoo that was picked out of a book or drawn out of whimsy onto a napkin.  It is a reminder of my father – because to me, José Victor Olaguera was known simply as “Poppie,” and for me, he was a man who was, until his last breath, forever brave.

My Father’s Month

February is a month that will always remind me of my father.  For my parents, Valentine’s Day was “their” day (no surprise, what with five children squawking in the nest) and my father, the great romantic, always had something special for my mother.  February was also the month of his birthday (which, in 2004, he came to share with my nephew).  And February was the month in which he passed away in 2012.

My father was 57 when he passed away, and many people have asked me if it was a sudden passing, such as an accident or heart attack – to which I must sadly reply, no.  He went peacefully in his sleep after a long and arduous battle with both Parkinson’s and Ankylosing Spondylitis.  It was so long, in fact, that I do not remember my father as the healthy, spry, and vivacious man that started our family in 1974.  To me, Poppie was always stooped, shuffling, and shaking.  However, to me he was no less a man or father than any other out there.  Poppie was a man of great faith and wisdom.  He had a strength of character than very few people in this day and age could hope to claim, and he was utterly selfless and entirely devoted to his family.  And for somebody suffering from debilitating diseases, Poppie never uttered a word of complaint out loud.  He never used his disabilities and illnesses as an excuse for anything, not even when most people would probably say that he had every right to do so.  Surprisingly, he remained rather self-sufficient until quite literally the day he died, working slowly through unimaginable pain each day to bathe, clothe, and feed himself just so that he would not overburden my mother.

And while his physical strength had never been enough to carry me as a child – and, towards the end, to even embrace me for longer than a few fleeting moments – my father carried within him an inner strength that was able to shoulder the weight of my world, and that of everyone else in his life.  My father had the courage and the faith to find something truly wonderful and good in the midst of his physical suffering.

At a euthanasia hearing here in Montréal in 2011, my father gave the following speech.  This is his legacy to me, and it is not one of despair and self-pity, but one of hope and great dignity.

I’ve had Parkinson’s Disease since 14 years ago at age 42; shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that among other things, fused most of the upper vertebrae of my spinal column. Last summer I had an MI—otherwise known as a heart attack.

I know the physical pain and the mental suffering that go with those medical conditions: the feeling of not being useful anymore, the humbling reality of not being able to do the activities of daily living, the prospect of getting worse (especially with chronic and degenerative diseases) and being a continued burden on the family.

That said, I empathize with those who are in terminal stages and in severe pain. They face hard choices and at times are alone in their plight or feel they have lost or are going to lose their dignity and have become intolerable burdens for their families. But perhaps, a different outlook is needed to find meaning behind all this pain and suffering, a more positive outlook that I believe has already helped others to look at death in a new light and discover that euthanasia is not the only alternative to preserve one’s dignity.

These medical conditions are blessings rather than punishment. The pain and suffering are opportunities we get for offering them up for the intentions of our loved ones and friends.

Let me explain: It is a basic human instinct to help anyone in need, more so if the one in trouble is a loved one. The help can be either material or non-material, sometimes both. A non-material help can be just simply good wishes and keeping in mind the one in need of help. Whatever form it takes, helping someone requires giving up or offering up something of value because we have empathy, the desire to be united with the one who is in need. Even if we are disabled, and perhaps because we are disabled, we can be of much help to those in need by offering up for them the things we have that are valuable: our pain and suffering, the sense of isolation and desperation—and the greater the pain and suffering, the more valuable and effective our offering up becomes.

We can become an inspiration for our family and friends. Remember John Paul II – who also had Parkinson’s – and was universally acknowledged by the world which witnessed the last minutes of his life still doing his work for which he had great passion. Perhaps having the courage and the strength to live to the end without resorting to euthanasia would be the best legacy we can bequeath to our family. This is genuine dignity.

To all my fellow disabled, we should not feel useless and unwanted, for we are the treasures of humanity: treasures that are valuable and irreplaceable. We should not allow ourselves to be discarded like objects that have no practical value at all, that have outlived their usefulness and have become instead an unacceptable burden for others. We are the treasures of humanity which remind the world that despite the fragility of human nature and its inevitable mortality, the dignity of every human being is based on his or her right to be of service to others precisely through their pains and suffering offered up for the needs and welfare of their family and friends.