Monday, 21 May 2012

99 hours, 21 minutes: about "The Wave"

After poor Constable Tim stopped my life, my memory gets pretty mixed up. Somehow I ended up in the kitchen getting a few more details about the end of Calista. They were trivial, inconsequential things such as how the bar-b-cue was just a quiet affair and nobody seemed to be doing drugs or anything.  Its kind of funny how people assume you care at that point; at that point they could have told me my daughter was a raving lunatic waving a gun in a drug crazed frenzy at the end and it would not have changed the vital fact she was never coming home..

And there is the term that always gets me crying: Calista, my baby, my little girl is never coming home again.  All I need to do is think about it and my vision blurs and my stomach rises to my mouth. That is the only thing that matters now. Never is a long time.

I sat at my kitchen table (somehow the venue changed from the darkened front hall floor to the brightly lit kitchen table). The grief councillor and the constable were asking if there was anyone that they should call. The wondered if they should call the office and tell them that I was not coming in.....well who the hell do you call when your life is ending and you live in a small village at the end of the highway with absolutely no family close by?

I stopped them from "just calling" the office; all my employees knew my daughter intimately since she had worked in my office for 6 months last year. Constable Tim was going to have to go, in person, and destroy yet three more lives, albeit short term. I really did not envy that man that day. I suspect that notification did not go much better than ours; my receptionist in particular is a wonderful, emotional woman with a deep motherly instinct. She would be devastated.

I had them call my brother Ivor. For some reason Ivor has always been my rock; the guy I call when my world folds around me. He fixed me when my knee was destroyed playing at karate, he supported me when the doctors diagnosed testicular cancer 7 years ago. He has always been there for me (despite threatening to fly me like a kite in a home-made hang glider when we were stupid teen-agers). The officer called him on his cell phone and, by some miracle, my brother happened to be standing in the middle of Vancouver International Airport waiting for a flight to take him home to Toronto. Instead of being at least a day away from saving me, Ivor was less than an hour away. One short 20 minute flight and he too could share my hell.  Wherever life takes us from here, I will never forget that huge mercy; my wife and I would not have survived that first 48 hours without my brother's "bull in a china shop" approach to grief counselling.

Throughout this mess I could hear my wife uncontrollably sobbing. It carried through the walls and down the halls like some condemned ghost from a dark Victorian novel. I think the grief councillor was a bit taken aback that I did not immediately run to her side, but I am not sure that she completely understood the dynamic between Roni and I.  I have always been "the fixer" who had to keep things moving, while Roni was the common sense who kept my dreams real. Roni does not like to "share the misery" when things go wrong; she prefers to bury the emotion, withdraw and stew on it for a while. Certainly there would be a time for me to crumble and cuddle and re-assure, but until the immediate fire was put out, I needed to stay on point. Now is the time to cut the narrative and tell my readers about "The Wave".

For me, the loss of my daughter was more painful than any physical pain a person can imaging. The primary reaction was a mixture of denial and acceptance. On one hand I continued to make plans about how I would get the rest of the days work done and maybe even get a work-out in that evening (denial) while on the other hand I sat there blubbering uncontrollably and tearing at my hair (acceptance). The primary reaction was like being grabbed by a massive wave ( all you body surfers picture the huge, short break on the north side of Oahu). You are rolled by the wave, gasping for breath as you sob uncontrollably, you come up for air, quell the fear, believe you might be OK, and then the wave grabs you again.  In the first little while, the waves are close, oh so close, together and you start to get scared that between the waves and the undertow you may just not survive. For me I would come up for air, find one cohesive thought to pass to the grief councillor, and then that fateful phrase would pass through my head: "my baby is never coming home again" (ah, there it is, a little breaker just pulled at me and I am having trouble typing now with my eyes filling with tears).  The emotions can only be described as raw and primal; I know I sounded like a ten year old boy wanting his mommy rather than a fifty year old man dealing with his daughter's death.  This is from a guy who smiled when his doctor told him he likely had cancer (I had known for days; it's another one of those easy assumptions when the nurse won't give you lab results over the phone. Its exactly like when a police officer tells you to come home NOW for important news. You don't need to fill in the damn blanks)

Grief is easy to compare to a treacherous ocean. There is always the undertow, pulling at your toes, dragging at your legs. As time passes (99 hour and 54 minutes since she died right now) the under-tow is always there, but slowly receding down your legs, less likely with every passing hour to grab you and pull you under. Unfortunately, the rogue waves are always there, coming out of a relatively placid sea, ready to grab you when you least suspect them. And they can pull you right under, leaving you gasping and wheezing, snotty nosed and blurry eyed. The stupidest things can set you off and, unfortunately, if you are with your wife or close family, the wave can pull you all under.

Some of the most innocuous things can destroy you for long minutes at a time.  On Saturday my brother wanted to do a little shopping and wanted to see the town that I had just moved to. I took him out in my red Mustang, dropped the top and made like it was just a nothing, routine outing. Things went along pretty fine, but I found myself becoming progressively more morose as time passed. I saw buildings that Calista and I had surveyed as photography subjects, I saw parks and trails Calista and I had explored during our first few months in Powell River. I even found the Canadian Tire store upsetting because Calista and I had a humorous episode trying to fit a large canvass punching bag into a ridiculously small trunk of my Mustang (oops, there is that wave again; I remembered her smile and her laugh). By the time we arrived home I had to leave my brother to unload the few groceries we had bought and just crawl into bed and cry for 20 minutes.  Imagine that; a fifty year old man curled in a foetal ball blubbering like a ten year old.  I had the sense to warn my wife about the effect of trips out into the town; she was prepared when the same thing occurred to her yesterday on her first trip out and about.

Last night I realised I was having a pretty good evening. I was taking some interest in reading or watching television. Roni, myself and Sherry, Calista's Godmother (just arrived from Regina to save us from ruin. Yet another person poor Constable Tim had to call. I probably destroyed that man's life for weeks.) were laughing and exchanging Calista stories around the kitchen table. About eleven Sherry stood up and left us to go to bed and Roni and I were left alone for the first time all day.  Suddenly, out of a beautiful, placid sea, came a massive rogue wave. I started to worry that having a relatively "good" evening meant that I was forgetting my girl, letting her go, allowing some part of her to die.  The wave continued to grow and Roni was left cradling my head as I became incoherent. Eventually the wave crested and passed over, but not before I came to secretly despise myself for enjoying some part of my life while my little girl had nothing.

All these years I thought that Hollywood had depictions of the grief process all wrong. Overacted, cliched, formulaic were all terms I had heard bantered around.  Only a fool that had never experienced real loss would even begin to suggest that.  Those scenes where men scream at the Gods and tear at their hair are real. If my hair was not so short right now, I would be bald from all the tearing in the last few day. Loss of appetite? That is better described as permanent nausea; it's not that you are just not hungry; you actually feel sick when you try to eat. Oh, and the need to save and preserve everything associated with your lost loved one? Absolutely.  I found myself staring at her garbage can in her bedroom, checking to see if there was any memento there I needed to save.  My wife was upset when I grabbed a photograph of Calista off her wall to show the grief councillor who we had lost. We cannot change the dirty sheets on her bed and now we are reluctant to sleep in her bedroom for fear of soiling the sheets so badly they will have to be laundered.  I was upset that we had laundered some of her dirty clothes; we had obliterated any scent of my daughter from those hallowed items.  I miss smelling her hair and the fruity perfumes she tended to use. And what the hell are we going to do with her little red Smart car; she picked it out, she protected it like a lioness protects her cubs, and she looked perfect in it. It was a perfect fit for Princess Calista. I know I will not be able to stand the sight of it but my wife will never part with it. What a mess.

Here is a conundrum: neither Roni and I can barely stand to drive out into our small village because it reminds us of just how much we will miss all the things we did here with my girl.  The solution might be a brand new start in a brand new village, far from here and far from the memories. Unfortunately that would mean leaving this house, leaving her room, leaving the last little concrete piece of Calista we actually have. Oops; there it is; the undertow grabbed at me, then a small wave just bumped me to remind me that my life is finished. Obviously we are trapped, for better or worse. 

One word of warning for everyone who has to suffer this sort of loss. It gets worse for the first few days. The first day you can still play the denial game: she's not dead, she's off on vacation taking many very nice photographs. The second day, after you have signed the cremation contract and asked for two copies of death certificates, you cannot deny any more. It is real. The wave comes a little less often, but damn is it big and powerful when it hits you. It will swallow you up and drown you if you don't find some sort of rock to hold onto. Like a blog or grandiose plans for a large memorial.

Here is the last entry for today. Something on a completely different topic. Organ donation. I am not going to get on a soap box about right or wrong here. I am going to point out a reality. If your child dies suddenly and there is some possibility of organ donation, for God's sake take that opportunity. If your child's heart or lungs or kidneys or corneas can go to some other person, some part of your child will continue to live. Somewhere out there there will be some small piece of her beautiful body still existing, still continuing. She (or he) won't be all gone.  My darling Calista could not donate anything; she was the subject of a police investigation, a mysterious death. They could not spare even one part of her magnificent body from death; all of her is going to be consumed by the fires. This is something I can barely live with and I have to tell everyone that if I just had that one small mercy, some of this would be better. I don't know how much, but some of it.

I have to go get ready to meet my daughter's three best friends. One of those girls had to desperately try to revive her 100 hours, 34 minutes ago. I have to try to stay strong and try to give them all the strength they need to return to the land of the living. This I have to do, for them, for my daughter, for my own sanity.


  1. Bryce,

    I followed the link from George Slade's post to your blog, and sat here crying as I read your words (as I'm sure everyone reading this has done). What can one say that will make a difference at a time like this? My heart goes out to you and your wife. May you hold strong to each other, and find a path forward to a place of peace and renewal. With my sincerest condolences,

    Susan Stanfield

  2. Bryce,

    Although I did not know Calista well or for very long, she was an incredibly bright, cheery, and beautiful young woman. Our hearts go out to you and Roni.

    Rusty & Jacinte