Remembrance Day in Movember

 

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This is about Doug. He was my step dad and I first met him when I was 8 yrs. old. It was not a good meeting. He was a stranger, and worse, he was apparently my new father. After my biological father’s death, my mother, a widow at twenty-four, did what she needed to do to survive.IMG_2846

She entrusted my care to her parents, returned to university, got a teaching degree, joined the Air Force and met Doug. They married, had a son, and, along with Doug’s two daughters from a previous marriage, came to collect me to complete their family. Surrounded by strangers, I was to leave with them and move far away from my known world.

It was the 1950s and Doug was a big man, handsome in the fashion of the Mad Men character, Don Draper. He was an air force pilot and fit the role. Used to military responsibility and discipline, he was assertive, comfortable taking and giving orders and used to being obeyed. As his child, Doug never needed to threaten me with physical punishment. He would glare at me and I would fear for my life. In later years, this same glare constricted my dating options to of only the bravest and most confident high school boys.

I feared Doug, but mostly I was resentful and angry. He marriage to my mother was the reason that I no longer lived with my adored grandparents and worse yet, why I was a cog in the wheel of this family of strangers. I was consumed with the grievances of yesterday and as a result, Doug and I never spoke much until my twenties, when the whole world changed. No milestone marked the event, I simply grew up.

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War stories animated Doug. A Royal Canadian Air Force pilot in WW2, he flew over Mt Everestimages (The Hurmp) from Dum Dum, India to Kunming,China to deliver supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Imperial Army. He loved recounting his adventures in Europe, Burma, India, Russia and the Egyptian desert. I marvelled at his knowledge and insight into cultures I scarcely knew. He showed me the wonders of the world and made me want to experience them for myself.  IMG_1846

When I would ask why we had not previously talked about such things, he would simply point out that I had been an angry child and he was waiting for me to grow up.

Happy stories led to the sad ones, his mother institutionalized with mental illness, his father’s abandonment of the children, Doug removing his siblings from an orphanage and leaving school far too soon to support them, a wartime marriage that ended with his first wife’s descent into schizophrenia and institutionalization, Doug alone with 2 small daughters while he visited his wife and mother in the same mental hospital. Through stories we bonded and Doug became my dad. In my 20’s he was the rock that anchored me and when life would fall apart, it would be Doug who would stomp into the room and say, “What in the hell is going on and how can I help”? My stepdad never criticized, nor did he hide his pride, but his advice was always tempered with a lesson. When I was in medical school and proud of an 80% test result, he would congratulate me then urge me to study some more. No one, he chided, wanted a doctor who only knew 80% of the job.

As a young adult, I loved Doug and even more, I respected him for being no one other than himself. When he developed prostate cancer I could hardly bear his suffering. The surgeries, the hormones that made him teary, the pain where metastases gnawed his vertebrae, these he never discussed, he simply endured.

Years after he died I organized Do It for Dad in his memory. I wanted others with prostate cancer to have the support Doug lacked and to demonstrate that one man alone need not bear this disease. On Father’s Day, when I jogged the course of Do It for Dad with Doug’s granddaughter, I thought of him every step of the way and thanked him for his patience during my long adolescence and his support of me when I was old enough to be worthy of his wisdom. He gave me much to be thankful for and he is the man I think about, with love and respect, on Father’s Day, Remembrance Day and in Movember.

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Remembering Jack

I might say I lost Jack, and lead you to believe that I somehow misplaced him, like I do my car keys. The fact is, Jack died, and lost is a euphemism, a soft, proxy word for death, to cushion the pain of its reality. I don’t like euphemisms. They detach my grief, and so, where I could say I Lost Jack, I prefer to say Jack died. He was important to me and when I write about him now, I want to feel as connected to him as I did when he was here. He was my friend, my best friend, and he is dead. That is a statement that I can feel.

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Back in the late 1970s, in spite of a 30-year age difference, Jack and I commenced a close and active friendship. Thirty-seven years ago, when I was young and vulnerable, he probably sensed that I needed a father figure and without hesitation, he and his family took me in. At the time I was a fledgling teacher and he was my Science Department Head. For me, he exemplified everything I admired in a man: intelligent and wise; patient and kind; principled yet non- judgmental. (It is no surprise that years later, I married such a man). Jack was a role model for me professionally, but more importantly, in life. Backpacking, hiking and skiing were passions he, his wife and I shared and together we spent many weekends exploring the Kootenay backcountry.

tumblr_m8ffogaq3p1rdod86o1_1280 In 1993, after I had moved away, changed careers and married, our friendship remained. Then, just as my step dad was dying from a protracted, and for him, humiliating illness with prostate cancer, Jack was diagnosed with the same disease. While I grieved the future loss of yet another father figure, Jack carried on until one day, at Kokanee Glacier on a great powder day, Jack breathed in the cold mountain air, carved a turn and was swept forever away.

After 30 years in medicine I have witnessed many ways to die and some are better than others. Early in my medical career, I felt a special grief for those who succumbed to sudden death, their goodbyes stolen away, but over the years, as I witnessed many more undergo the protracted, painful deaths of chronic disease and cancer, sudden death seemed less tragic than it used to,especially when juxtaposed with the prolonged suffering of so many.

 

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As I have aged, I have resolved the bulk of my grief over Jack’s death by recognizing that he died as he lived: fully engaged in the moment, before it became the last moment he ever had. I miss his solid presence but his spirit is very much with me skiing the back country and in the mountains.. It makes me smile to think how happy he would be to share these adventures.

 

Photos off Tumblr of Kokanee Glacier

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