My mother packed her bags and left my father when she was seven months pregnant with me, her belly swollen under her loose-fitting maternity dress. She planned to stay with her parents until my father “got his act together”. But he never did, and she never returned.
She raised me on her own, with the help of her parents. My childhood was quiet and simple. I read books in my spare time and went to camp every summer. For vacation we would take the train for free to Montreal, or New Brunswick, enjoying our frugal travels thanks to my mum’s employment with a railway company.
Most weekends she was at work, so I spent Saturday and Sunday with my Maltese grandparents. My Nanna would cook stuffat-tal fenek (rabbit stew), and tell me it was Maltese chicken. I would watch hockey for hours with my Nannu, while we cracked peanuts into a bowl, shovelling handfuls of them into our mouths.
The first goodbye
When my grandparents were not able to watch me, my mum would reluctantly drive me across town to visit my father. Our visits were rare and stilted, our relationship like a broken car that fails to ignite.
I do not recall an affectionate hug or a tender word between us. I do remember empty beer cans piled high in a rubbish bin, the smell of cigarette smoke that coated the back of my throat, and the weight of my dad’s dog curled up in my lap.
I felt lonely at my father’s house. I would sit on the blue velour couch he had found in a rubbish dump as murder mysteries played on the TV; the silence between us as thick as the smoke he blew in my direction. Still, I held onto a seed of hope that one day things would change.
My father never said or did anything to make me think he loved me, and I held my love for him close, afraid of letting it show – but feeling it just the same.
When I was 15 years old I spent an evening with my aunt and uncle on my dad’s side. They were a loving couple who embraced both my mother and I, despite the fact that my parents had divorced long ago.
As I scraped the remnants of my chicken and potato dinner into the rubbish, I overheard hushed whispers from my mother and aunt.
“I don’t think Ryan will live much longer,” my aunt was saying of my dad.
I stuffed that piece of information deep inside of me and plastered a fake smile on my face for the rest of the evening.
When it was time to head home I asked my mum about it. Her tone was matter of fact: My dad’s live-in girlfriend, who I adored, had left him. He was spiralling out of control; the house he now lived in was a gathering place for addicts and drifters. He had been found unconscious and beaten recently, likely by someone who was staying with him.
I felt myself sink into the seat of the car, deflated and defeated by my mother’s words.
I tried my best to hide my feelings, but as soon as the car pulled into the driveway I ran into my room and slammed the door, sobbing for the father who had never shown any interest in me.
I did not want my dad to die, and I did not want him to be an alcoholic and drug addict either. I wanted a normal dad, someone who would take me to baseball games and watch me in school plays.
A few days later, afraid to go alone, I asked my boyfriend if he would come with me to visit him.
A few of our friends rallied together and we drove over to his house. He seemed a little shaky and more haggard than the last time I saw him.
Before we left, I hugged him, unable to recall the last time we had touched, and he hugged me back. I wanted him to know that I loved him, especially if this was going to be goodbye.
A shared pain
For the next few months, I waited. Every time the phone rang, I expected to hear that he was dead. But I never did, and eventually life returned to normal.
My dad moved out of his house and in with his parents.
By my late teens I was barely in touch with him, but every time I heard talk of him it was because he had been arrested or hospitalised. I would overhear snippets of conversations – he had been found beaten somewhere, he had had a fall, he was being given alcohol in prison or hospital because his body was so reliant on it – but I never knew the full story.
Underpinning all those stories, however, was the suggestion the end was imminent. So on the rare occasions our paths crossed, I always assumed it was for the last time and would try to cherish those moments believing they were goodbye.
Then I met my husband, Daniel. Shortly after I was married, at 21, I found out I was pregnant. I was excited to learn that my half-brother was also expecting his first child. I had never been that close to my two half-brothers, who were much older than I and had a different mother. But the three of us did share the particular pain of loving – and being afraid of losing – our dad.
We decided we would get together with our dad at my oldest brother’s house. I hoped my pregnancy would soften something inside of him and perhaps even motivate him to finally beat the demons he battled.
I was excited to see him.
At the house, I shared pregnancy tales with my sister-in-law as my half-brother, Aaron, told me how happy he was that our babies would be so close in age. For a moment, we felt like a normal family. Then I asked Aaron where dad was, and his face darkened.
“Upstairs,” he replied. I knew there was more to the story, but I did not ask.
My oldest brother, Jason, whose house we were at, was also nowhere to be seen.
Nearly an hour later, they both appeared – my dad stumbling and clearly drunk, Jason trying to keep him upright.
“You’re drunk. Why would you do this?” It was the first time I had ever raised my voice at him.
At first, there was silence. I felt Aaron’s hand on the small of my back. He whispered words meant to soothe me, but the damage had already been done.
Then the shouting began – slurred, incomprehensible shouting – and the banging and crashing.
At one point, my dad was locked outside to cool off.
Aaron returned with a gash on his forearm and his face dripping with sweat.
“You have to be careful what you say,” he shouted at me.
Apparently, dad had become a violent drunk.
Jason decided it was not safe for us to stay downstairs, so my sister-in-law, Daniel and I went to his bedroom and locked the door.
The crashing and banging continued downstairs.
“We need to call the police,” I whispered. I do not remember who made the call, but someone in that bedroom did.
When we heard the approaching sirens, I unlocked the bedroom door. But it was eerily quiet downstairs. My father and brothers were nowhere to be found.
It turned out, not wanting him to be arrested, that they had driven off with my dad, but the police soon caught up with them and my father was arrested.
“I never want to see him again,” I sobbed that night.
Broken and bruised
Five months later my daughter was born. I was adamant that I would not see my dad nor have him around her. But eventually my brothers wore me down and over the next few years, I saw him occasionally, and briefly, in public places.
I still loved him, but I was also afraid of him.
Then, I received a phone call. My dad had fallen out of a third-storey window, and nearly died. He was in hospital, his body broken and bruised. I hung up the phone and immediately got in my car. Daniel drove me two hours to the hospital, and waited in the car with our two daughters while I went inside.
My father’s grey hair was matted. His collar bone protruded from his hospital gown. All of my anger melted away. I tenderly signed the cast on his broken arm, scrawling my name beside those of my brothers. I held his hand gently; it had been a decade since I last embraced him.
“I love you, dad,” I said, behind tears. I was saying goodbye, this time, for real.
A small town
Six weeks later Daniel returned home from work early. He sat me down and told me that my oldest brother, Jason, had died of a big heart attack. He was 42.
It took us days to locate our father, who was now living on the streets.
On the day of Jason’s funeral he was in prison – I am still not sure why.
I stumbled around in a fog. This was not the way it was supposed to be; my brother was not supposed to be the one to die.
I refused to talk to my dad, believing he had abandoned me again as I grieved.
Then, in 2019, shortly after I turned 30, I received a call from my dad’s sister. I answered the phone with shaking hands.
My grandmother had a big stroke but was still alive. She was a tough woman, strong-willed and fierce. I remember her cooking pheasant she had found dead by the side of the road, and spending hours sewing elaborate quilts. She took my father in when nobody else would, and no matter how many times he manipulated her, she always welcomed him back.
For the same reason, I had always avoided visiting her; afraid my father might be there. But when I heard the news, I packed our bags and drove to the small town where she lived. I sat with her in the hospital and held her hand; whispered to her how strong she was.
At dinner my aunt asked me if I knew that my father was experiencing ministrokes or TIAs and was no longer able to care for himself. Still, he drank and took drugs.
“Do you want to see him?” she asked.
We were in the same small town as him now. Earlier in the day, I had looked at the faces of every elderly man we passed, afraid that his might be among them.
Part of me wanted to say yes. But I did not.
I understood that this really could be my last chance to say goodbye. But I had been saying it for half my life already.
The next day, we drove out of that tiny town that contained my father, and I felt something that was not regret. As I looked back at my three daughters playing on the backseat, I felt free.