No Stories to Tell

In the late summer of 2009, I began this blog with almost euphoric optimism.  Little did I know I was atop the peak of grief and depression, and about to crash, or that it would be almost two full years before I returned to this page.

It was early July and it had already been a tough year.  My grandmother died on Christmas morning; a young woman who had worked for me the previous summer committed suicide; and the daughter of a friend died tragically.

Then my children’s father, GB, long a victim of Multiple Sclerosis, died —way too soon—just before his 54th birthday.

GB had been living outside Vancouver and, as irony would have it, hubby and I had already planned to vacation in British Columbia.  On the top of my list of plans was a visit to my ailing ex.  Little did I imagine as I booked the holiday flights that I would be visiting him in a funeral home, not a rest home.

My daughters don’t live in the same city as I, so when my youngest phoned to say her dad was breathing his last few hours, I was helpless to offer her or her sister any succour.  What I did manage to do was call the hospital room and talk to GB over a speaker phone.  I don’t know if he heard anything I said, but when I told him I loved him, I meant it.

Our impulsive romance developed out of a common leftist orientation which we shared in our mutual workplace and which we sealed one summer afternoon in 1980 Ottawa.  By chance, as I was walking down Bank Street, I ran into him, standing outside a laundromat at the top of Flora Street, in his blue jeans and long-sleeved shirt uniform, expertly rolling a Drum tobacco cigarette.  We chatted, we tossed his dry laundry into an old duffel bag, and we headed back to his place for coffee.  Evening coffee became morning coffee….I only left once, a few weeks later, to pack up my apartment and move into his permanently.

One morning, walking toward our favourite brown-rice grocery about a month after we became a couple, I raised the issue of the birth control we hadn’t been using.  “May is a good time to have a baby,” was GB’s response.  Our first daughter wasn’t born until late June, but we were married in May. Whatever plans I’d had for my own life I promptly forgot as I fell into step, now wife, now mother.

GB was a devoted father and a good provider, if a bit of a slow starter.  Even now, friends comment that he couldn’t start any project before drinking an entire pot of coffee and rolling innumerable flakes of Drum.

I credit GB with my passion for good coffee, my taste for cumin and cardamom, and my devotion to radio. When my ears weren’t tuned our daughter or CBC, I was listening to him discuss the papers he was writing to earn a journalism degree at Carleton.  More than once, he woke me when he was wrestling with the finer points of the Miliband and Poulantzas debate about the nature of the Marxist state.

A second beautiful daughter arrived 20 months after the first, and by the time the new baby was five months old, GB had taken a courageous and principled stand about the working conditions in the post office where we’d met. When asbestos began to fall from the ceiling, GB became concerned about bringing it home to the girls. He bought a white, one-piece coverall, as well as coverings for his head and shoes and, daily, donned the protective wear he kept in his locker before heading onto the plant floor. Subjected to increasing derision from colleagues and troubles with management, GB applied for, and finally received, a transfer in August 1983.  We bought an old school bus and fled to his mecca, Vancouver.

We found a small house with a fenced front yard and settled in to our new life.  His new life.  While I fell quickly back into the routine of raising our daughters and running the home, GB dove enthusiastically into a new workplace and its social milieu.  Maybe it was the night shift he worked; maybe it was a budget that couldn’t be stretched to afford us time out alone; maybe it was me losing my sense of who I’d been when we met.  Who can ever say?  In March the following year, our baby turned one; in June, her big sister turned three; and by the end of that summer, I realized, with bewilderment, that our marriage had played its last.  By November 1984, I was a single mom in a province that no longer felt like home.

I sold just about everything I possessed—including the rocking chair in which I had nursed both girls— and headed back to Ontario.  For some reason, I kept both the freestanding cutting board GB had owned before we met, and the print of Andrew Wyeth’s Evening at Kuerners that we’d purchased to celebrate our brief engagement.  I have them both still.

In the years that passed, I saw GB twice; on both occasions he’d come to visit his daughters and camped out on my couch.  Everything was different, but not much had changed.  I was still raising our children and he was still committed to life on the west coast. He still needed a pot of coffee and quarter pouch of Drum to begin his day.  He was still a staunch left-winger who thought he could predict earthquakes.  He still looked a little like Christ, with his long curly hair—especially when he wore white.

What was different, of course, was my sense of self and our feelings for each other.  Yet, despite two very serious disagreements, in the two decades after our separation, GB and I managed to stay casually connected, sharing the news of the girls’ progress through life in relatively easy conversation.

But it was when Multiple Sclerosis took a front run at my ex-husband that warmth returned to our conversation.  No longer were we focussed on the news of our now-grown children; instead we were chatting like old pals. Information junkies, both, we discussed world events.  And much of our conversation was about his life in chronic care, scenarios which he detailed with an increasingly wry sense of humour besotted by an increasingly difficult time maintaining a conversational thread.  We laughed about that too.  I sent him books on tape, and pictures of his granddaughter.  I looked into getting him a computer, although I’m ashamed to say that I procrastinated.  Someone else looked after that.

Long before the time my 26 year-old phoned to say her father was dying, I had come to peace with GB’s condition and with the knowledge that I could always pick up the phone to say hello.

I didn’t ever think the next time I dialed the hospital’s number, it would be to say goodbye.

The funeral was sad in too many ways.  My impotence in the face of our daughters’ grief was almost unbearable. So, too, was the feeling of having to repress my own confused emotions out of respect for those who knew GB more currently and more intimately. I sat beside my girls, wiped away quiet tears, and smiled as GB’s best friend (best man at our wedding) shared stories of my ex-husbands’  exploits as a young man.

That’s when it struck me.

I hadn’t known GB well. In four short years, we courted, married, brought two daughters into the world, and separated.  The first year was the stuff of all new couples—lovemaking in word and deed.  The next two years were the stuff of all new parents—breasts and diapers and anxiety about getting it right.  The last year was the stuff of all disillusionment—pain and tears, bargains and recriminations.

We shared two children and a 30 year acquaintanceship, but I had no stories to tell.

I lived out my grief in the only place I felt I could let go— the arms of my current husband. He never questioned the sobs that broke from me as I thrashed through the pain that was about far more than simply GB’s death.

One late night, about six months after her father had died, my youngest and I were sitting on her Toronto balcony, sharing a glass of wine.  Quite tenderly she asked how I was doing:  “Do you feel like a widow?”

No, not a widow.  My life is full with daughters who are true friends, friends and relatives who merge into one extended family, and grand-babies who let me revisit the past and pre-visit the future.  And, of course, PB, my love and partner of six years.

My first husband, GB, father to my children, fell like a pebble into the young stream of my life.  Two years after his death, the waters nearest me have ceased to ripple and the surface where he landed so many years ago is, again, still. I’ve finally stopped diving in search of that pebble.  It’s enough for me to know it’s there, and that it has changed the course of my aging river.

~Lady Di


Evening at Kuerners

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm  Comments (20)  
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