I grew up knowing my father was a disappointment. By most accounts, he met the description of the typical ‘dead beat dad’. Missed birthdays. Forgotten phone calls. Priorities other than my brother and I. My parents divorced when I was four and my brother was two. For the first couple of years we had weekend visits with my dad and would occasionally see our grandparents. Weekends turned to afternoon visits. Afternoon visits turned to coincidental run ins with his girlfriend. Run ins turned into missed weeks, missed months and eventually missed years. Phone calls turned from ‘How are you doing’ to ‘Listen to my problems’ as my dad navigated a complicated life of unemployment, homelessness, multiple broken marriages, lies, and commitments he couldn’t live up to. Looking back, the two low points burned in my brain are: watching my dad repeatedly let my brother down (often not showing up for planned outings) and the time he took us to our grandparents so we could receive our birthday money only to stop at the gas station on the way home where he pretended he forgot his wallet and took our cash. As a kid, all of this hurt.
Roughly twenty years ago I had enough. I let my dad know how I felt, how he had let me down, and why I was not going to be on the receiving end of a very dysfunctional relationship. And that was it. No more phone calls or broken appointments. Nothing. My brother has a much more forgiving soul and kept trying. Phone calls would come every year or two, plans would be made but more often then not the plans would be broken. And yet – there were glimmers that my dad wanted to reach out. At different points in my life I would learn that he knew more than I thought about me. He would mention achievements of mine to my brother or ask about my marriage or children (neither of which I had told him about). When I ran with the Olympic Torch he told my brother he would call and ask if he could come watch. The phone never rang. My phone did not ring for twenty years.
This passed July, on my 41st birthday, I was out for a family hike when my phone rang. Half way up to Quarry Rock I answered my cell only to hear “Happy Birthday. It’s your dad”. Unexpected. Not prepared. If I had known in advance I would have worried about what to say. I would have worried about how I would feel. I would have debated whether or not to answer the phone. Instead I heard these words: “I would like to see you one day… I will call you again soon”. After hanging up, I was happy he had called. I imagined the courage it took to pick up the phone. I wondered if it would ever ring again. Shame held him back and that next phone call never came.
I am not unfamiliar to the world of shame. Many of the homeless men I have met who live in the Downtown Eastside Streets of Vancouver are prisoners to their past. Even though many of them accept my invitation and mail heartfelt messages of love to their families at Mother’s Day and Christmas, they will not open the door to receive love back from their families. It seems that time and time again when families contact me and ask their loved one to call, it’s the men who say no. I can think of three or four men where I have tried to convince them over and over to phone their families. Their eyes sparkle knowing their loved one has been reached. They want to know all about them. Some even have offers to fly home and live with family. No men that I have worked with over the past six years of Project HELLO have taken this step. They can’t. They blame themselves. They are burdened with guilt and shame and they don’t want cause any more harm. They usually feel they deserve the circumstances they are in. Instead they turn to their addictions or new friends to find comfort.
It’s funny, because people who know me well and know my dad was once homeless often ask if that is why I started Project HELLO. I have always said no, and I still believe that’s the answer. As an adult I wasn’t looking to repair the relationship. Well last Wednesday night, my phone finally rang. But it wasn’t my dad. It was my brother telling me that if I wanted to say goodbye I should head to the hospital as our dad was on life support in ICU and may not make it through the night. That’s when the anger came. Why? This was it – the finish line and he still hadn’t found a way to reach out or apologize for never being there. I was furious. Luckily the hospital was an hour away so I had time to think about what to say. We had been told that he could likely hear us but would not be able to speak. I drove and prepared for the one way conversation. And this is when it hit me… I did not start Project HELLO because of my experience with my dad – BUT – my experience with Project HELLO would help me say goodbye to my dad. I thought of all of the men who wanted to reach out and couldn’t. I thought of the messages of love they would write but could not say. I knew my dad was just like them. He never found peace in this world. I didn’t want him to die that way and so I decided I would ask him to forgive himself. He needed to know that neither my brother or I carry the anger with us – that we are and will be ok.
My brother and I met in the hospital lobby and headed to the ICU. Due to a shift change, we were asked to wait in the ICU family waiting room with one other family. As we walked through the door, I could not believe it. Standing in front of me was my favourite person from the Downtown Eastside (DTES) – a lady named CJ. Six months ago, the first lady we ever met in the DTES (Sandra) had passed away. CJ was her caregiver in her shelter. When Sandra passed, CJ didn’t know how to find me so she led an Aboriginal prayer and prayed that I would arrive before Sandra’s spirit left (4 days after death). On day two I knew Sandra died. I don’t know how but I told two students that we needed to go to her shelter to check on her. When CJ saw me and recognized me from a newspaper article about Sandra she started to cry and shake and asked how I knew to come. We formed an instant friendship and together we planned Sandra’s funeral, cleaned out her SRO housing and packed up her items for her family. As we got to know each other CJ taught me about Aboriginal customs surrounding death and told me her story – one of addiction, pain, prostitution and escaping from Robert Pickton’s farm. Her pimp broke her jaw sending her to the hospital. It’s the only thing that saved her from the night Pickton picked up her best friend and killed her. Knowing she would die if her life stayed the same, she went through re-hab and eventually secured a job as a care worker in the shelter. Sandra had always protected her on the streets and now it was her turn to care for Sandra. The two of us were Sandra’s closest friends.
As we sat in the waiting room, CJ and her mom shared the news that their nephew had been stabbed and airlifted to the hospital. As we waited, they taught us more about Aboriginal culture and how my brother and I should respond when seeing my dad. Their talk provided comfort and I knew that once again we were meant to meet.
When it was time to enter the room to say goodbye, a nurse escorted my brother and me to the private ICU room. We stepped inside. The skeleton of a body looking back of us had to be hours from death. Something seemed wrong. The hair was much darker than my dad’s ever was. The facial structure didn’t match. After my brother and I looked at each other in confusion, we stepped out and read the sign. The last name was 3 letters off my dad’s last name. It was the wrong room.
We were re-directed to room #9. What did we find? Another surprise. A nurse sat blocking the entrance and began to give us a medical update. I have no idea what she said as I was too busy staring at my dad – a man propped up talking on an I-phone. Hooked up to multiple machines, he was on life support but he was having a conversation on a phone as a man in a green vest sat with him. The nurse asked if I had any questions. I said yes – who is the guy beside him? Oh – that’s his nephew. Huh? My brother and I are my dad’s only living relatives. When he was a child he lost one sister to cancer and lost his twin sister to suicide. He does not have any living brothers, sisters, parents, nieces or nephews. We said a polite hello and met a family friend who refers to my dad as his uncle. Turns out my dad and his fourth wife had sponsored a family to move to Canada from Bosnia. How is it that the same man who can’t be a dad can sponsor others? Perplexing – but nice to see that he helped someone.
My dad looked up and made eye contact with me. We have the exact same green eyes. His eyes filled with tears, he reached for my hand and he repeated over and over “It feels like Christmas.” He could not believe my brother and I were there. The love he felt for us was instant. He cried and cried and pulled us closer to him. Amazed I watched this person who I had always thought to be heartless have light, warm and even charming conversation with his ‘nephew’ and his nurse. It was comforting to see that despite his failed relationships with us he had made some connections in this world. Minutes later “aunt and uncle” showed up. Confused again, my brother and I offered to step out for a while while they visited.
An hour later, my brother and I returned to find my dad alone. We each sat on one side of him. Initially small talk prevailed and he went on and on about the expensive parking we must be paying. He didn’t like that he was costing us money. His eyes would say more and you could tell on multiple times that he wanted to say more but couldn’t. I thanked him for phoning on my birthday and said it must have taken courage. He agreed it did, while shaking his head and staring into the distance. He talked sports with Jeff and struggled to go deeper. He became incredibly uncomfortable and needed water, blankets, help from the nurse, etc. He winced in pain and struggled to breathe. And then it happened. With each of us at his side, he talked about how he knows he has grandchildren – and knowing that Jeff and I are happy, is what he needed to be able to forgive himself. He apologized and told us he lives with guilt and shame every day for the type of father he was. We asked him to forgive himself. He kissed us both, told us he loved us, how special we were and said it was time for us to go. Jeff smiled and said to him “It’s all good dad.” As we walked away he seemed comfortable. My brother turned to me and said “do you see how happy he is?” Later on, when we reflected on it, my brother said it was the first time in his life he could think of my dad and feel happy.
That was the last day his mind was well. Dementia set in and although he is still struggling to live, his mind is confused yet happy. We have both visited one more time. He now tells us stories – stories of his grandchildren playing outside in the yard, stories of going for drives together and going for coffee, watching the Canucks play last night, and enjoying his new residence watching the World Cup Series. Although he has no TV he stops to tell you each time they score (in case you are curious today it was a 3-0 win for Brazil over Canada). When my brother stopped by today he said “oh Kristi’s here too – see she’s down there”. Jeff corrected him – “No dad – that’s a nurse”. “Oh ok – well she must have gone to the washroom then – I know she is here”. Jeff smiled and agreed.
From what we understand, our dad will die any day. Although he was never able to be the dad he should have been, he has found some peace knowing we are ok. Jeff is right. “It’s all good.”