I Like the Shades
The world is filled with advice on how to deal with one of its most common events: death. The advice is meant to tell you how you should feel, and what will happen. From the funeral home, I received The Reality of Grief, I Know Someone Who Died colouring book, and Thoughts for the Lonely Nights, among others that I can’t remember. I found the whole recommended process of processing loss a bit stifling, a bit cold, a bit black and white. These well-wishers, experts, people at the grocery store, and others — they were all missing one very key component: that they weren’t my dad and therefore couldn’t possibly know what he would’ve said, or what he’d have wanted.
I smiled and nodded and accepted all the sympathy and support with the gratitude these deserved. I glazed that smile, tuning out whenever the sympathy and support tried to morph into a lesson, a lecture. But then one of these conversations took a different turn, when a pair of kind old eyes looked at me and told me a story about their own journey in such a way that I didn’t feel I had to act a certain way. I could just take their offering of humanity, of caring, and put it in my box of things that comfort me. This box was one I pulled out frequently during this time, as I tried to piece together all the parts of my dad without him there to confer with. These eyes created such a shift in perspective that I began to document similar instances to tuck away alongside.
I’m standing in my mom’s house, a record in hand, the wrapping paper in an uncharacteristic heap on the floor. The Christmas lights wink from the tree on my right but don’t register as my vision swirls with tears — of surprise at first, and then with a new picture altogether, a picture of a warmer day in the past, in a white room with a big window that I’m tall enough to see out of but still young enough to stare out of thoughtlessly.
He’s moving from the vehicle, with a wrench or some other tool in hand and a song from the radio following him out the passenger door. I know this vehicle. I know that behind this door, there is a thin film of cigarette smoke. Lying on the seat is The Calgary Sun and the crowbar that he never needs to look for because it’s in its proper place, riding shotgun. There are gloves for town and gloves for work. Sometimes, when I’m helping him, I put on the work gloves, dwarfing my own hands as I protect myself from the greasy task at hand.
“Here, put these on.” he says, and I do. This is later though; the me at the window hasn’t made her debut as tractor caretaker yet. That girl views tools, like the dishes she dries and the shed she feeds her cats in, just as parts of her life, without having any consideration for their use.
The window must be open, because the song has no trouble finding its way inside, drifting over the sewing machine on my left, before collapsing, exhausted in the hallway beyond. It’s pleasant, catchy, and the child at the window moves closer, pressing her ear to the screen in an effort to absorb it all. She doesn’t, can’t know that fifteen years later she’ll be looking at this scene again in a memory, staring intently at the figure in the John Deere green — seeing the way he moves, the way he lives. How utterly ordinary this moment is for the child and for him. And yet this moment means just everything to the older figure, who is already slipping away, back to the present.
As the tears clear up, the words on the record in front of me come together to form “The Road Goes on Forever,” that album my dad played so often.
Some gifts are perfunctory: little bottles of soaps grabbed from closets or gift cards to places most people know of. This one never is, however, even though I’ve been receiving one from the giver for so many years that I’ve lost count of the birthdays and Christmases and just because’s. For many of those years, we’ve both given each other a book, a running testament to our similar habits and tastes, and I’m excited to see what this year’s will be. There are three books in the brown paper bag, a real haul, but my eye is drawn to the two outliers. One is a country scene that looks like a puzzle I did with my mom as a child. I’m saying how comfy it makes me feel, when I see the second frame, the familiar coat, see myself! The scene is blurred in a pastel rub, but it’s unmistakably me, very small, and being held by the man who gave me so many things: my subdued eccentricity, my love of space, grass, and people who need love more than others.
We’re in a picture that I’ve seen so many times before, especially this last month, since it grounds me, assures me that he was in fact real. In this rendition though, those blue eyes, the ones that I didn’t quite inherit, are different from the other pictures, in which they twinkle just as people always remarked. Here the blue leaks out of them, dully and slowly. She made him so much sadder. And then I break a bit, as I see into him, look beyond the twinkle mask, or at another side of it.
I’m in a bar this time, my favorite, with two great friends and a guy that is purposefully provoking them. I’m amused at first, swirling gin, since I don’t have much invested in him and my friend is quite capable of handling the situation. Then, just as I’ve relaxed into a comfortable position, this acquaintance says something in a belligerent and insistent drawl I recognize. I’m taken aback, taken back, with that swirling sensation that’s starting to feel familiar. I’m landed in the kitchen chair of my childhood home. He’s on my left, blinking through scotch-slowed eyes, as he desperately tries to take me along on his mental journey.
“You’re Not Listening.” The irony was that he was the one who couldn’t hear others when he was in this state. I can feel the frustration oozing off my younger self.
The bar music is loud and so are the lights, and besides, I’m in public and aware I need to pull it together. So this trip is shorter, but only a little less tear-inspiring than previous ones. My friends, the guy, they’re all comforting, really kind. They give me a moment to stare quietly at the purses and well-cut coats passing outside the window. Looking around, the moment past, I make eye contact with the gruff bouncer, the one who looks like a mountain man and doesn’t hold much with pretty girl banter. Now he’s asking, I’m telling, and he’s telling his own story — a real moment of humanity bared under those very pink neon lights.
I drive down Highway 36 to a spot on the road that’s shocking in its familiarity to me. It’s mundane to everyone one else, the shelter belt a mile off the main road offering only a slight break in the sheet of snow-covered brown stalks flanking the asphalt. I’ve chosen this day because the Weather Network claimed that soon we’d be in for at least two weeks of -30 temperatures and leaving home in such conditions seems unnatural. Nevertheless, even this day feels colder than I would like as I cart boxes filled with books and bills and hop vines out of the old family home that had long ago been abandoned to the elements.
My mom told me that these boxes had been taken out of the new family home when I was seven in preparation for a window replacement project in the office, which explains all the bills. The new family home is gone now, turned into a pile of ashy foundation by a fire. That’s why I’ve bothered with this sad collection of forgotten records; they’ve been promoted to prime memorabilia by the removal of everything else.
When my fingers are finally too numb to grip boxes, I climb back in the seat of my truck. Moments later, I watch a significantly more character-infused pick-up come towards me. A wild looking, white-haired man with red-rimmed eyes jumps out of it. I’ve never met him before, but I’ve heard that he’s a black sheep and that he’d taken my dad to town for supplies (whiskey and pizza) shortly before the fire. I smile warmly at him.
“He was a…,” he says, and then speaks my dad’s name with a wry sort of grin, which is as concise and as nice a way as I’ve been able to put it yet.
Five days before the fire, I go to my favorite bar to meet friends for Halloween celebrations. I talk to a man ordering drinks, drinks I don’t approve of. Later in the week, we talk for hours over drinks that are more to my liking. After the fire, I take some time off from the world, then meet him again, and again, before he exits abruptly, and I conclude that is that. Then, small-town Calgary brings us together in a line up to that same bar, which leads to a we should, yes let’s, tomorrow at 2, it’s a plan, and…
It’s my first coffee of the day, yet I’m shaky, this time from a late night and not the usual caffeine high 2pm brings. Still, I’m calm about meeting him. The adrenaline that usually comes from close encounters with love interests hasn’t bothered to show up today. I don’t stop to consider until later whether this falls in line with the calm presentation I gave two days ago at work, when words that may have previously evaded me were at my service, ready to oblige. Or perhaps it’s because my conversations with him feel like the middle C scale: simple, requiring only the most basic of guidance to flow gracefully.
He’s exactly on time, tall and dark in the hat I recognize, with perhaps an involuntary grin breaking the smooth features when I make some comment about him, some joke.
“So we’re here,” he says, and goes on to describe himself. This annoyingly capable man is so unlike the person he’s claiming to be, a sort of Russian nesting doll of boxes, one whose perfect control of his life has been wrenched away, by me supposedly. I sip the overpriced but so-good coffee, trying to think on the spot. All I can come up with is that he doesn’t seem this complicated, not to me; maybe just a bunch of clear boxes then? There is a slight jolt on my heart side when he confesses that he’s stuck in his before-me life, and that my dreams of morning coffee on his high-rise balcony apparently won’t come to be. But I hold my composure and try to come to some sort of resolution in which all parties are treated kindly: me, this man, his long-term love affair. So now he’s my friend of sorts and I feel better than before, when I didn’t know. I can hope now that this will be less painful than life without him would be — without this man, who looked at me with sad eyes and tried so hard to express his sympathy, his understanding, his desire to help me through my journey.
When I was little, my dad used to sing on the good days. For a man plagued by bouts of despair that could manifest as hostility, it was natural that my mom soon picked up on this. It became a casual remark, an expression of optimism regarding the day ahead. “Your dad is in a good mood today,” she would say, as a melody came from the porch where he was pulling on his boots.
In the typical fashion of childhood memories, I have a crystal-clear vision of him. He’s much taller than me, singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” He picks me up and continues, “You make me happy, when skies are grey…” I’m laughing with the full joy of a five-year-old. “You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,” he sings, and his day-old stubble brushes my cheek as I hold on to something so solid, so indefatigable. “Please don’t take my sunshine away,” his voice trails away in my memory. This trailing away didn’t happen; it’s merely a product of the thinly veiled melancholy of the song, which is pulled into view for those like me who feel they need to look.
Last night, somewhere between 12 and 2 am, he was around again, once again that social pariah — his behavior having pushed away person after person until he was left sitting as he always did, head bent towards the floor. Throughout the course of this replayed scene, I somehow came upon the certainty that he only had a year to live, and the process I’d undergone in reality, where my anger dissipated without a trace and my sympathy rose in great waves, happened all over again. The only change was that this time I could vent that sympathy on that inclined head, causing those blue eyes to crinkle, causing the incline to lessen, causing my dreadful guilt to swell up and dissipate like the anger had so kindly done. This way I fulfilled my role as his sunshine.
Exponential Decay Never Reaches Zero
Now these instances, these hand-picked moments, they all came in rapid-fire succession because of course it was all fresh and on everyone’s mind. It’s expected that this will die down after awhile, these poignant moments spacing themselves out further and further apart. However, my guess (or maybe just my hope) is that someday in 2042 or 3 or 4, a Magenta or Burnt Orange moment will present itself and I’ll be left once again with that just slightly shifted perspective on this event, my dad, his life. This is comforting in its own right because no one wants to run out of moments, out of colours, out of things that have the same effect as stories emanating from kind eyes.
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Grace Curry works as an engineer-in-training in Calgary, Alberta and spends her free time collecting experiences and then writing about them. Right now, her writing mainly focuses on her childhood in a very rural part of Alberta and how the rest of the world looks through the lens this childhood created.
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