The beginning of memory
At a recent Vancouver performance, avant-garde icon Laurie Anderson opened her show with a piece called The Lark*, a creation myth that takes place when the world is young, before there is any land. In the narrative, birds fly above the earth, endlessly circling, with no place to land. When the father of one of the birds dies, the flock is perplexed—there is nowhere to bury him. After some thought, the young bird buries her father in the back of her head. This, says Anderson, is the beginning of memory . . .
It is a potent image, but the significance of the symbolism didn’t make itself clear to me until my own father, Tod Greenaway, passed away a short while later on October 24th.
In the moments following the long-awaited phone call from my sister in Nelson, I learned that you can prepare yourself mentally, and perhaps even emotionally, for the death of a parent, but there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for the body’s response, the physical reaction to that sense of finality. It was as if some part of me had been severed and set aside.
In the days following my father’s death, I also learned that grieving is a process that will not be rushed—there are no shortcuts. Much like a physical wound, emotional healing is a process that moves through various stages. Working at home during the day, at the computer, my mind would drift away to memories, processing my thoughts and emotions.
Two weeks after his death, Amy and I along with my son Taiyo, drove to Nelson to spend a few days with my mother and sister and my sister’s family. The drive itself felt somehow symbolic. Seven months earlier I had taken that same drive east following a call from my father announcing that he was dying and that he wanted to say goodbye. That drive, following the route of the Japanese Canadian internment, was the strangest trip I have ever taken—not knowing what was awaiting me at the end of my journey. It was a route we had both driven often, though rarely together. As I passed through the ever-changing landscape, I wondered, was I going to bury my father? Was this the end of his own unique journey through life? It turned out of course that he was right, he was dying—he was just off by half a year. In the end, it was a wonderful visit—a chance to reconnect after a long separation. His mind, while starting to go, was still clear enough and we were able to spend time together, really together, for the last time.
This last drive was different. The waiting was over. There will be no more journeys for my father; no more canoe trips; no more cups of coffee brewed at the side of the Dempster Highway; no more half-overgrown paths to explore. And it was good. It was time for him to go. He had long since given up on the world of the living.
One thing I was not prepared for was the feeling that came over me walking into the apartment that my father had until recently shared with my mother. For he remains a presence in the house. While he is gone, he continues to exist through the objects he had made (and collected) over his lifetime—both practical and ornamental. From the chairs we sat in, to the kitchen counter, to the art and photographs hanging on the walls, I could feel the essence of who he was. His ashes even resided in a box he had made (though not for that purpose). It was oddly comforting—to be surrounded by the tangible reminders of a man who created things with his hands and with his mind.
It struck me then that I wanted more than anything to share those parts of my father that continued to live on with whomever was interested. In the spring I had built him a website as a way for him to showcase his self-published book online. The book, Loitering, exists in printed form, but I thought the web would be another way of sharing his writing with the larger world. As it happened, the time I spent building the site coincided with his steady decline, and he never got to explore the site himself in any depth before passing away.
So on Remembrance Day, following the ceremony at the Japanese Canadian cenotaph in Stanley Park, I built a web memorial to my father (www.todgreenaway.ca), posting samples of his woodwork, his photographs and his writing. It felt therapeutic, somehow, something concrete that I could do to work through my emotions. That same morning, at the Remembrance Day reception, the father of Trooper Michael Yuki Hayakaze of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) had talked about losing his son in Afghanistan on March 3, several days before he was due to return home. As I built the website, working into the evening, I reflected once more on the fragility and complexity of life. I felt strangely at peace. Mr. Hayakaze had lost a son; I had lost my father. Yet a few days earlier, the couple next door had welcomed a baby boy into the world, as had another friend of mine. And so, I thought, life goes on . . .
Dear readers, I’d like to thank you for allowing me to share this page with you over the past year. It is truly an honour to put together The Bulletin every month, and to share, on the editorial page some of myself with you. Your words of support and encouragement are uplifting, especially during those times when it seems as if life is one big endless deadline punctuated only by sleep and the occasional meal. On behalf of those involved in putting out The Bulletin, I’d like to wish each and every one of you the very best for the holiday season. And may you and yours find peace, health and happiness in the New Year.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge the passing of longtime community member Pearl Williams. She was truly an extraordinary woman and I will miss her intellect, her dedication to the things she believed in, and most of all, her indomitable spirit.
*Apparently based on an ancient Greek play called The Birds, by Aristophanes