Monday, November 9, 2009

The wall came down

"And I wake up and I ask myself what state I'm in,
And I say well I'm lucky, 'cause I am like East Berlin.
I had this wall, and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks,
And I could hear their radio.
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing,
And they'd know that I was scared,
They'd would know that I was guessing.
But the wall came down, and there they stood before me,
With their stumbling and their mumbling,
And their calling out just like me..."
- Dar Williams, "What do you hear in these sounds?"

Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down. Well, to be entirely accurate, the gates were opened and people were allowed to travel between East Berlin and Berlin without ID checks. The wall woodpeckers, chipping away at the Wall itself (or, as we all memorably saw on TV, smashing it with sledgehammers) came later.

On the same day, something of less global significance happened halfway around the world: my father died.

It takes every bit of courage I have to keep writing past that last sentence. I don't like to talk about this except with one or two people, and I have come to realise recently, more than ever, that my habit of "pushing things down" is not an entirely healthy one. Coupled with a significant anniversary (twenty years is, frankly, almost unfathomable), I decided that it was time to talk, if only to my (limited, let me tell you) subscribers. I feel an almost crushing need to share some stories on this anniversary, to mark the passage of time in a meaningful way.

I find myself mentioning my father more now, in passing, briefly, alluding to his jokes with my students at Algonquin ("What's the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?" "Well, one is in fulfillment of requirements to become a Phony Doctor.") I talk about his love of the theatre (his own phony doctorate was in English Lit, and his dissertation focused on the stage history of Romeo and Juliet - since I am spending waaaay too much time these days on Amicus, I would refer you to Amicus #s 85462, 6756158, and 10132599). I've explained to dozens of people how momentous my upcoming trip to England is, being the first time I have travelled there since the early 90s, and the first time I am spending with my father's family as a whole since the mid 80s.

Sometimes this is easy for me, and comes naturally, and sometimes it shatters me just to get a trivial memory out of my mouth. I know it's what I need to do, though; the more time passes, the more I realise that this is how someone lives on: in sharing those stories, those memories, with others. It's the best way to keep him alive for me, for my family and friends, for my students and work colleagues, none of whom he ever met.

I've recently understood how much of an introvert I am, and that there is nothing wrong with how I handled my father's death (although it's not a good way to, say, live a whole life). The tragedy made me withdrawn: for years, I didn't talk to anyone about him: I remember my mother bringing home those kids' books about grief (if I could recommend one that didn't exist at the time, it would be Michael Rosen's Sad Book, which made me weep openly at work a few years ago), trying to start the conversation, but to no avail. I remember my mum's friend and colleague Ros trying, in her kindness, to break the shell, and how I was so utterly mortified at her attempts. I felt like I didn't have the language to talk about it. I didn't miss a day of school, and carried my grief (selfishly) close to my heart.

It was only in high school that I made my first true best friend, someone I am privileged to still share a very wonderful friendship with. I felt comfortable talking to her, and so she was the first to hear how deeply I was still grieving. She and I observed the anniversaries of my father's death, and his birthday, by doing something together, whether it was as small as sharing a box of Smarties (my father had an outrageous sweet tooth). It was what I needed, and I am forever in her debt for creating the kind of relationship where, for whatever reason, I felt like I could talk.

I am indebted in many ways, also, to the Anglican community of Montreal. Lacking a larger extended family, I was able to see in them a collective memory bank. Many went out of their way over the years to tell me a story about my father, or simply to say they remembered him. Every time I see Ros (which, granted, is not that often) she tells me my father would have been proud of me. My mother is now serving as interim priest in the parish my father served in during the late 70s and early 80s. A woman came up to her recently, saying she had such fond memories of my father: she recalled how he welcomed her as a child, made her feel important, made her believe she could do and be anything. She told my mother that this acceptance and encouragement made her believe in herself, and years later, she remembered his compassion and generosity. I have had my issues with this community, over the years, but I have nothing but admiration for the ways in which they can rally around people in a time of need, and, in my case, for years afterward.

I am amazed at the sheer weight of grief: it is still there, every day, every week. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don't miss my father. Years ago, when downsizing, we gave away a number of his old books. Some ended up on the booksale truck at Westmount Library, when I was working circ. I was OK with the books going, but it was hard to be the person actually tallying up the sale. It was only when a father and daughter came in and bought a few that I thought, let it go. I still snipped out the edges of the endpapers, where my father had inscribed his name and the year he obtained the books, and spontaneously pocketed them. Two of these endpaper triangles are still in one of my suit jacket pockets, and when I reach in, I am comforted.

I am a librarian because my parents read to me, and I saw them reading, voraciously as a child. I am a librarian also because my mother took me to Westmount and Atwater Libraries, as well as to the Birks Reading Room and the Diocesan College Library at McGill (I was heartbroken to see Dio. sold last year). I am a librarian because my great-aunt bought me virtually every Nancy Drew book, from the original hardcovers to the Case Files. I am also a librarian because I saw ignorance and intolerance around me in my college and university years (anti-gay sentiment in church youth groups, religious hatred and incomprehension of my Muslim boyfriend at the time around 9/11) and I truly believe that education and literacy are the keys to stamping out intolerance in the world. But sometimes I think I really became a librarian when books, specifically those books, my father's books, became sacred to me. They were a link we could share beyond other, more permanent, boundaries.

So, in the spirit of those high school Smarties, I urge you to do something for me, today, to maintain that link. Big or small, it doesn't matter. Here are some ideas:
  • Sing or play the piano.
  • Eat some After Eights. My father convinced me to leave them for Santa because they were "his favourite."
  • Read some Shakespeare.
  • Tell a lame joke (my mother would likely recommend the one about the two skunks, In and Out. It involves a long, "Who's on first?"-style monologue, but here's the abbreviated version: In and Out got lost in the woods, and Out finally found In. When asked how he found his brother, Out says, "In stinked").
  • Smoke a pipe.
  • Write a funny limerick.
  • Use the phrase "back to you with knobs on!"
  • Play the "Frank's Trucking" game: yes, this needs explanation. You know, reverse the first letters or syllables of a phrase: go to the ost poffice to pick up your package, park in the larking pot, etc. Now figure out why Frank's Trucking is the classic example....
  • Move to a new country.
  • Change your life.
  • Change your student's lives.
  • Show compassion.
  • Be a leader who can be relied upon to support others and inspire them to greatness.
At the time of his death, my father was chaplain at the Royal Victoria Hospital and editor of the Montreal Churchman (now the Montreal Anglican, for, um, obvious reasons...). The last editorial he wrote was entitled "Too Many Armadillos." A poem about the compassionate, suffering Jesus seen in the Gospels, it talks about a Jesus who "sighs / and weeps / and rages. He is sometimes at a loss for words." My father writes,

They break his body
but not his spirit.
And I can identify with that.
I can accept a Saviour who has suffered,
and let go of pride, prestige, and self;
Never one who is invulnerable;
Never one who covers up the cracks, denies the earthquakes;
Never one who pretends to know it all.

People, priests and prelates alike
Do themselves no service when they act like the armadillo.
Who can relate to the armadillo
when there's hailstones and coals of fire falling about our ears?
Give me the Man of Sorrows;
the Jesus who said he felt forsaken!
Give me the Christ who was misunderstood.
His power, as stubborn Saul found out,
is "made perfect in weakness."
Not in covering it up,
Nor in pretending it doesn't exist.

Something I suspect I am often guilty of, in my personal life and perhaps even in my professional life. I hope I can do better. I tend to be very much of a "stiff upper lip" kind of person, which I think I thought was "admirable" until recently, when I realised that it can have some pretty awful side-effects for a person's development and self-awareness. I am trying to be more open, and this is my first genuine effort, here, kids. I think it's important to share this, both for myself, so that I can begin to be less of an armadillo, and for others, so that anyone stumbling on this post in their own grief might be comforted.

Now go out there and eat some chocolate.


  1. A beautiful, moving and inspiring piece, Alex. It would be the greatest joy of a father's life to have a daughter like you.

  2. “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
    ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

  3. Good for you, Alex. It always takes courage to take on a life in its entirety and to excavate what we had buried when we didn't know how to do differently. Bon courage, mon amie!

  4. Alex, you've painted a portrait of such an interesting man -a talented writer with a great sense of humour, and a loving father. Thank you for sharing him with us.