It’s been a year since I rushed in from the bee yard to hold my dad’s hand as he died. A whole twelve months since we sang him home - a whole circle around the sun, a whole bunch of events and experiences without him, a whole year of navigating our new normal. In many ways, after months of watching him slip away, we were ready for his death, but I’m not sure we were prepared for our life without him. As I reflect on the past year without him, I realize that there are some things I just wasn’t prepared for – things I didn’t know before I had to know them.
I didn’t know that other people would be so kind. Mom and I often joke that we only really cry when people are too good, too kind. We have cried a lot this year. So many people have just been so very kind and supportive in so many ways. People just keep showing up to help in concrete ways or to just sit with us in our sadness. They help us get through the tougher days, like his birthday or special occasions like Christmas. It’s been a beautiful reminder of what community is – what it means to really do life with people. I’ve heard from so many people, near and far, this week who wanted to let us know that they are thinking of us at this anniversary of his death, that they remembered and they care and that they are still here. We have met people in so many different situations who didn't even know my dad, and yet they have still offered kindness, sympathy and support when given a choice. In a world where it often seems like everything is going downhill, I can attest to the kindness of strangers and the goodness of people.
I didn’t know that other people would be so sad. I think maybe we underestimated the loss that those around us would experience. We weren’t the only ones left reeling, having lost this extraordinary person. So many folks have shared their sorrow with us, expressing their ongoing grief over the loss of their friend, their mentor, their family member. We journey together with others who also feel his absence deeply. It means something to know that we don’t travel this path alone, and that he meant so much to so many in this world. And I regularly hear from people who, wanting to honour my Dad, have done something in his memory – something beautiful that makes the world a better place. I love that with these tributes, his goodness somehow ripples forward. People keep his memory alive in such tangible ways and I am grateful for that.
I didn’t know that my mom was so smart and so strong. Of course we all know that she is smart and strong but she never had to muster it like she has had to this year. There are so many things she never had to do before, because they were Dad’s domain. Over the decades, they had developed a very clear division of labour in their marriage – portfolios based on their expertise. Mom’s portfolios were health, education, hospitality, communication while Dad took care of finance, maintenance, transportation…. You get the drift. Neither of them had to be good at everything because they had each other. Why be independent when you can be interdependent?! No one has felt my Dad’s absence more than Mom. Everything in her life has changed. Aside from the heartbreaking loss of her true love, her life has been turned upside down because she is on her own for the first time in her life. I can’t even begin to list the challenges she has faced and overcome this year. But I marvel at her resilience and can-do attitude each time I talk to her. Every time she talks about getting her car serviced, moving some money into her TFSA, doing anything online, fixing the toilet, or driving across the country by herself again, I am amazed. She is seventy-one, and learning how to do all these new things, in the midst of her sorrow. And still she keeps on stepping up to help others, worrying about neighbours and friends and family members, offering advice and solutions – taking care of everyone like she has always done. She is adapting, reinventing herself and I am so very proud of her.
I didn’t know that I would feel his absence like I do. It’s been a year and I still regularly forget that he is gone. He has always been my go-to guy, and when I am stuck, I still reach for my phone to ask Dad about anything and everything. And then I feel the pain of his loss all over again. I hadn’t realized just how much I constantly reached out to him. I used him instead of Google. He was my source of advice and solutions for all things. Not the hand-holding, earnest conversations type of advice. More like the ‘go get these three things at the hardware store and I will be there in an hour’ type of solutions. I now know what it’s like to live in a world where you can’t buy stuff off of Kijiji all the time because you have a Dad and that Dad has a truck. I now have to pay attention to interest rates and weather reports, figure out how to change my own headlights and wiper blades, make decisions about our bees and our business when I am the only one here to do so. I made it to forty-four before I fully had to start adulting. The buck now stops here. I know my brother Jamie feels the same way, so we have learned to call each other to hash out stuff when there are decisions to be made about our businesses. We aren’t quite as enthusiastic as Dad was when we share about opportunities to expand and improve but I think we are all just a little more cautious, a little bit diminished by the loss we have experienced and the absence we feel each day.
I didn’t know that I would feel his presence like I do. This is one of those big things you don’t know until you know. I spent an afternoon with my Dad a couple of weeks ago. Beautiful serendipity landed me on a nearby farm with a couple of old beekeepers who are combining forces to build a honey house in one of the outbuildings. Dad and I had been trying to figure out how we could expand and have somewhere to spin and jar honey since we started! I stood in the large building while they laid out their vision, and my dad was right there with me. I could almost see him with his hands in his jacket pockets, his FFM hat on, his head cocked slightly and his big smile. I found myself asking all his questions for him, especially the one that went something like “how much money do you need from me to cut me in on this endeavour”? The whole car ride home, I talked excitedly with Dad about plans and possibilities, what we could do next, how this would change everything for us in terms of honey production. I spent a sunny winter afternoon, driving around with Dad and I could not stop smiling about it. Another day, I heard his voice. See, there's this lovely guy named Milt. We used to have bees on his property. When Dad became ill, Milt sent me a message to offer his sympathy and to suggest that he was always there if I, or anyone in my family, needed to talk. Seemed odd to me. Lovely, but odd. And then he sent another message to clarify - he is a counsellor, who specializes in grief and loss. Suddenly that made sense, and we had a good laugh about it later. Anyways, Milt has become the perfect person for my Mom to talk to. He has been a great help to her as she navigates her grief. So recently, Milt asked if he could borrow my old manual spinner for extracting honey. And Dad told me, clear as anything, "Give the extractor to Milt". I didn't even question it, because of course Dad would give the extractor to Milt. So, this girl, who still takes her cues from her dad, gave Milt the extractor. And Dad continues to be not here, but also very much here in unexpected ways.
I didn’t know I would be so angry. When Dad was sick, we could not say enough good things about the treatment he received from the kind and brilliant people at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. What we didn’t say much about at the time was the terrible care he had received in the early stages of his cancer. His local doctor and local specialist were negligent in ways that we are only now fully comprehending and confronting. Their incompetence, stubborn refusal to listen to Dad and willingness to put professional courtesy towards each other over the health of their patient meant that his cancer went undiagnosed for a long time. After months of fighting against the very people who were supposed to help him, Dad managed to get a diagnosis elsewhere and was immediately connected to the best of the best in Toronto. I will never forget the moments after the grueling surgery where two extraordinary surgeons, having been forced to remove most of his tongue, stood there in tears asking us how the cancer had ever been allowed to get that far. They said his symptoms, from the get-go, had been classic oral cancer and that any ENT should have caught it. The specialist and the family doctor had failed to do their jobs and Dad paid for their negligence with his life. This is where the anger comes from. I am not angry at God, at the injustice of a good man having been taken too early. I am angry at two professionals who were careless with the life of my extraordinary father, at the system that protects them and makes a malpractice suit a worthless endeavour, and the fact that my little boy doesn’t get to spend his childhood learning all the most valuable things from his Baba.
I didn’t know that I would be okay. I honestly thought losing Dad would destroy me, but as it turns out, I am okay. Those are the moments that take me by surprise – the moments of okay-ness, rather than the moments of raw grief. I am not sad all the time. And I am certainly not sad for Dad. I know where he is, and it is infinitely better than here. And I know I will be there with him someday. So I am not as sad as I thought I would be. But I shudder with sorrow when I remember how he suffered, needlessly. I am so sad when I think about his pain and the doctor who wouldn’t give him anything for relief or help him find a diagnosis. I am filled with indignant grief on behalf of my mom, who fought so hard to save him, and gave him the best death anyone could ask for, and still questions herself all the time – as if she were the one to blame for his death. I worry about my little brother who feels the injustice and the rage and the sorrow even more than we do. And I sigh for Henry who, gifted with an extraordinary memory, talks about his Baba all the time, recalling their adventures from when he was two or three. Just the other day, on the way to the bus stop, he told me “Mom, you sure walk fast but do you know who was the fastest walker in the whole wide world? My best Baba. He went so fast.” Yup. My dad went so fast and now he is gone. This sadness is the price we pay for love. Our loss would not be so tremendous had he not filled our lives with so much goodness. So I am okay. We are okay. Life is hard, but God is good. And we are okay.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!