Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Five Weeks, Six Days: No Regrets for Yesterday

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared 'neath the stars alone
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you'd ever say goodbye

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn't I a king
But if I'd only known how the king would fall
Hey, who's to say you know I might have chanced it all

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

Yes, my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

[ From: ]

Today's post is for all the people who never had children by choice; some of you might be saying to yourself that my loss is one of the reasons you chose to miss the dance. I am writing today to say I would not have missed a moment of the last twenty years. Certainly I could have missed the pain, but with the exception of that last terrible day, I regret not one moment of the last twenty years.  Calista was and always will be the absolute love of my life.
Today will be about my best memories of that girl; some of them will be funny, most will be pleasant and all of them will be bitter-sweet. There are just so many things I will miss; even if I return to those things, they will forever be a pale shadow of their former shades.

Calista and I used to go out of our way to attend art shows. It was a bit of a joke for us since Roni just could not stomach one moment in a museum.  We would tow her along with us, threatening to make her walk throught the gallery inch by inch, bored out of her tree, and then we would turn her loose to go shopping at the last moment. Over the years Calista and I saw "The Realists", "The Impressionists", "Realism through Surrealism" (really great show, Vancouver!), "The Dutch Masters", "Andy Warhol Retrospective" and a whole bunch of other worthwhile art elsewhere in the galleries we attended.  Calista had her own opinions on "The Group of Seven" and Emily Carr, she enjoyed some but not all of the modern photographic artists and she loved Andy Warhol.  I am pretty sure she enjoyed the art shows more than I did, but I was there to enjoy her enjoying herself, not necessarily for the art.  I will miss the art, but I just cannot see myself returning to the galleries any more; for all the enjoyment I will get out of it I might as well just buy coffee-table books.  Its too bad; I was really looking forward to seeing the major European collections with her: The Louvre, the Uffizzi, the Papal Collections and perhaps the Sistine Chapel (if we could get there sometime there was not a religious festival).

Photographic safaris were a favourite escape for both of us.  I remember finding a decrepit village museum in Etzicom, Alberta that had a yard full of windmills in various states of repair.  The sun was just going down, the prairie stood silent, the only sound was the light summer breezes ruffling the leaves in the surrounding cottonwood trees and the odd piping of a startled ground squirrel. We spent an hour shooting the windmills, playing with the light effects as the sun crept behind the rolling hills of the southern Alberta countryside. Typical of Calista her pictures were all composed almost perfectly and had unique lighting effects that my eyes could not pick up. She also had a whole lot of "gopher" shots as the little critters that denned under the windmills came up to inspect us. It was early summer and the most recent crop of gopher pups had not learned the survival fear of their parents. There was all sorts of opportunity to catch close-ups of baby gophers.  My shots were all not quite good enough for public inspection; that was the nature of our relationship.

Sometime when she was almost 17 she finally decided to learn how to drive.  On one of our trips to see her grandmother Ruth out on the isolated ranch she shared with her husband Harold in Etzicom, Calista and I had many, many hours to fill as Roni visited.  We took the opportunity to get some high-way driving miles under Calista's belt. The country roads around there are usually absolutely empty, perfectly smooth and straight, so it was pretty safe driving.  We would make the 15 or 20 kilometer run from Etzicom to Foremost and back, sometimes going as fast as 80 kmh if I really teased her a lot. Fast driving was never Calista's preference.  She always dragged along the trusty Canon 40D, just in case a photograph opportunity popped up.

Beside the two-lane blacktop highway there was an old county graveyard filled with the dead of the local families dating from the late nineteenth century. Calista saw some intriguing composition with the old gravestones in the foreground surrounded by the tall prairie bunchgrass and the rolling hills in the back-ground, so we spent an hour or more exploring the yard.  I was cold and slightly bored, so I started reading the headstones of the various groups within the fenced grasslands.

Whenever I was with my daughter, I was always looking for ways to get her thinking without making it a chore.  Here I saw an opportunity to get her thinking about what she was seeing on the gravestones and if she could tell a tale from what she read.  In one grouping there were two larger graves and a half-sized grave between. One of the adult graves was a twenty year old woman who had died in the early years of the last century. The child next to her, unnamed infant, died the same day.  Calista saw the tale there immediately; a birthing gone terribly wrong at a time when doctors and hospitals were few and far between. The next group of graves was a little harder for her to understand: several adults from the same family of various ages all died within a few months of each other in 1919 to 1920.  I explained to her about the Spanish Influenza that followed the end of World War One and how it killed more people world-wide than the war itself.  Now I have no idea if this family actually died of Spanish flu, but I saw a chance to teach Calista a bit of history and I grabbed it.  Of course she just smiled and nodded her head, all the while looking at the angles of the shot through her camera view finder,checking for composition. I am not sure she learnt anything that day, but I felt like a good father for a few moments.

Once we moved to Powell River, the expeditions for photography became shorter but far more focussed. Once the college had her under their sway, every trip out was a mission to get specific shots.  There was one trip to the historical Townsite neighbourhood that was a pretty silent two hours; Calista was far beyond anything I could help her with and I was essentially just a chauffer and bag-holder. If she had been a golfer, I would have been the caddy. It was fun to see my little girl all growen up, completely confident in what she was doing. On the way home Calista gave into me and let me stop at Willington Beach for a short hike up the beach trail there.  This had been one of my favourites since we could always count on getting some of the little squirrels  that lived in the trees there to pose for the camera. The little rodents were always looking for food hand-outs in the form of peanuts. That day she was really disappointed because very few of the squirrels were out and about. I guess they sensed that we had forgotten to bring bribery.

Very soon after that trip, Roni picked up a big bag of shelled peanuts just for Willington Beach expeditions.  Those trips were kind of a bonding thing that we all enjoyed and they were made just so much more fun if the squirrels would come down into the range of Calista's view finder.  That damn bag of peanuts is still sitting in my pantry unopened; she died before we ever had another chance to visit Willington Beach.

Since she has died my camera sits gathering dust in the bottom of my bedside table. I should get the film out of that camera and have the pictures from it developed; they represent the last few trips out with Calista.  Inevitably I will be embarrassed at how bad the shots are and I doubt that there will be even one shot of Calista.  She never would sit still for me to take her picture (undoubtedly knowing that I would botch the shot). It is getting progressively harder to get film and film processing, so that camera is likely never going to be used much anymore.  I am not sure it really matters anyway; without Calista to challenge me and tease me, photography really is not interesting to me now.

One of my very favourite memories of Calista was our father-daughter trip out to the private island of one of my clients.  Calista earned our passage to that island by being a wonderful, caring receptionist on her day off. Mark, the owner of a very large Irish Wolfhound with a belly ache, called one early one summer Sunday morning asking if we could see his dog immediately.  I listened to his problem and I thought it was a good idea since Irish Wolfhounds with belly aches could be in a whole lot of trouble.  I agreed that I would meet him at the clinic as soon as possible. It turned out that "ASAP" meant a minimum of two hours since Mark was calling from an isolated island somewhere north of Lund. Intrigued, I told him to just call when he was withing ten minutes of arriving at the clinic.

I guess Calista did not have anything else going on that afternoon, since she volunteered to come into the clinic to help out her old man. As we both aged, me going grey and her hair colour changing with every trip to the hair dresser, Calista had become progressively more protective of her dad, worrying that I would just keel over dead one day from overwork.  I guess the joke is on both of us, eh? When Mark arrived with the immense "Murphy" in tow, Calista fell right into professional receptionist mode. She had taken the time to don uniform scrubs and do her hair, while I turned up for work in jeans and a T-shirt.  Who was the adult here?

Mark was a nice enough guy but he certainly did not impress me as any mover and shaker of the world.  He arrived at my clinic in worn jeans, a ragged golf-shirt and leather sandles that had seen better days.  His dog Murphy was absolutely wonderful and it was immediately apparent how much he cared for the big goofy dog. I sensed that Mark was a no-nonsense kind of guy who would not economize on Murphy's care, so I did everything reasonable to make sure Murphy was going to be Ok.  It turned out that he had eaten something that was causing some wicked diarrhea and gas and just simply treating his symptoms was enough to fix the issue. 

Mark had some errands to do around town, so he left Murphy with us for the afternoon. Murphy spent most of the time with us hanging his head over Calista's shoulder as she sat at the desk. It was pretty hard to input data on the computer while simultaneously scratching his ears. Those two bonded and I guess we must have impressed Mark since he invited us down to vaccinate all his dogs out on his island just a few weeks later.

Mark sent me an e-mail to the effect that he would pick both of us up in his private float plane and fly us up to his island where we would vaccinate his dogs and have lunch with him and some other guests.  I kind of pictured Mark himself dropping into Powell Lake with a beat up old float plane patched with duct-tape and bailer twine and spiriting us away to a rustic cabin on an island shared with a bunch of drop-out hippies.  I was not really being judgemental here; it never occured to me that anyone in my little world would actually own an entire island.

Imagine how surprised both Calista and I were when the plane docked up at Powell Lake. It was a beautiful corporate amphibious ten-seater piloted by Mark's private pilot who greeted us with a thick Scottish brogue and a big friendly grin.  He flew us north for about fifteen minutes, passing over Savory and Hernandez Islands and landed in a small inlet on an island just south-east of Cortez Island. Mark indeed did have his own private island, fully outfitted with a mansion of amazing dimensions and several well appointed outbuildings to house his staff. We spent a wonderful afternoon examining and vaccinating dogs, enjoying an amazing lunch made of food grown right there on the island and touring a virtual paradise in the middle of nowhere. Once we returned home poor Calista was just speechless; she thought that kind of wealth only occured in Hollywood movies. My joke of the day was a little tasteless; I asked her if she had checked to see if Mark had any sons about her age.

My father told me and I told her this basic truth: there is nothing wrong about marrying for money because you can always learn to love somebody, but you can never learn to love being poor.  I never listened to my father and she never listened to me; exactly as is should be.

We attended grief couselling yesterday. That was traumatic.  I will get into it a bit more when I have some more time to digest what was said and what we have to look foreward to. The truth be told, the only big surprise about the visit to the counselor was the vast tidal wave of emotions that hit me when we started talking about Calista's death.  I thought Roni was the basket case in this marriage. Talk about a fooling myself; I have a very long, hard road ahead of me. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

Five Weeks, Four Days: Grief Counselling; Really?

My daughter's first (and last) apartment stands empty now. We brought the last of the furniture home yesterday in a rented van.  Pretty sad really: I sent Courtenay a beautiful, energetic and caring 20 year old girl and Courtenay sends me back a brass urn of ashes and some used furntiture.  Poor bloody trade if you ask me. That pretty well wraps up everything I have to do for Calista. Now what to do with the rest of my life? That seems to be a very empty question right now. I am not sure I feel obliged to do much at all for very much longer. Sometimes eating, drinking and breathing seem to be too much effort.

We have an appointment with the grief counsellor tomorrow. She seems very optimistic that she can help us. She has just bundles of literature on how we should feel and how we should respond to those feelings.  I am sure she has just tons of experience helping people deal with the loss of their loved ones; she works in a paliative care hospice. Of course there are books and pamphlets and circulars, all written by very knowledgable and experienced people. Perhaps some of those people have lost a grand-parent, an elderly parent or maybe even an in-law, so they can "share" our loss. In  the paliative care ward the counselors no doubt were present when any number of victims of chronic disease died. This experience will aid them immensly when they deal with our issues.

Does any of this just sound like the biggest pile of manure ever?  Has anyone ever asked the bereaved if they feel like sitting down with a good book about other people that have lost loved ones?  I can think of all sorts of things I would rather do, some of them quite painful and vaguelly disgusting. Then there is our special situation: our daughter was not old, she did not suffer from any chronic diseases, she was not a drug addict and she was not depressed.  My girl did not die slowly of cancer, she did not commit suicide after months of severe depression, she did not even die of a drunk driver whom I could blame and hate. She died suddenly at the dawn of the best part of her life for no apparent reason. How in hell's name can any book-smart person even begin to counsel us in our moment of need when they could have absolutely no idea how we feel?  This sounds like just another way for somebody to feel validated and needed while we feel like packing up our kit-bags and parking our bodies under about 6 feet of dirt (or getting our bodies roasted in a kiln for about 20 hours).

I spoke with Rob, the supervisor of Calista's apartment building yesterday when I passed him the key to her empty apartment. He lost his wife to cancer a few years back.  He comiserated with me but he also recognized the very clear difference between his loss and Calista's death. Rob, at least, got to see his wife's departure coming.  On the other hand, her death did mean that he will never get to have children or grand-children. Rob never plans to marry again and, truthfully, he is getting a bit long of tooth to be thinking about starting all over again.  Just like Roni and I, Rob is a evolutionary dead-end; without children or grand-children, his particular set of genes are gone from this planet forever. No hope of immortality for any of us.

Funny how you never think of this sort of thing until it bites you on the ass.

Rob was preassured to take grief counselling by all his friends and his in-laws. He decided to forgo the infinite pleasure of talking about his deepest personal feelings with a complete stranger (versus pulishing your deepest feelings on the world-wide-web, which is a completely different matter altogether).  He just could not see how some university trained doctor who has never walked a mile in the boots of the bereaved could advise him on how he should be feeling.  I am not really sure how the counselor can help us either, but this counselling business is kind of like politics and voting: if you never vote, you can't bitch when you don't get the government you like.  If we don't go to counselling and hear the counselor out, it's pretty hard to call counselling a failure.

One thing I will lay money on though: counselling will take many visits and likely last a year. By the end of the year, the pain will have abated, Roni and I will be better at faking happiness, and the counselor will be able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Everyone will ignore completely the fact that every person that shares membership in the Club of the Damned (people who have lost thier children) has told us that regardless of whether you get help or not, things will improve in about a year. What counselors call therapy, the rest of us call time.

I am sorry about the vast well of negativity coming from me, but I have been through the counselling shell game before. Back in the fall of 2009 I realised that I was unhappy with my life and how it was turning out, so I sought counselling.  The counselor was a great guy and I really liked him, but to tell you the truth, he could have fixed my problem the first day. He just needed to tell me to suck it up and get on with living (aka "the Calista Solution" to everything).  Back then my problem was that I was passively observing of my own life; I had a job rather than a carreer, I had hobbies rather than passions, I was the head of a family rather than part of a family. I was basically wasting my life. If that counselor had told me the absolute truth that I needed to take control of my own life, I would have been cured in about 30 minutes. Of course, then he would have not made any money off me and he would have been unhappy himself.

In this case, I am really not sure what anyone can say to us to make things better. Unless someone out there has a surefire way of resurrection (with ashes in an urn, that would be quite a feat) or perhaps some inside knowledge of the afterlife (maybe they could convince my Calista to phone home and tell her mother that everything is alright and that she is waiting for her on the other side) I am pretty sure anything anybody could say is just so much hot air. Well meant and in good faith, but still just so much hot air.

How about a Calista story? 

Calista's first year at university was a little rough.  I am a big proponent of education, but I am not sure that formal education is all that it is cracked up to be. Some of the dumbest people I have ever met have an alphabet soup after their name while many of my great heroes have only limited post-secondary education. I guess my view on the subject is that it's not so much how much you know, but how much you are willing to learn. So many people with advanced degrees seem to be all filled up and intent on just showing us all how clever they are. I guess my attitude rubbed off on Calista, because she did not thrive in the rarified ivory tower.

Art history was the bain of her existence. It did not help that the university had a revolving door for the instructors, but the overwhelming emphasis on names and dates just killed that course. I personally enjoy art history, but my enjoyment comes from the study of the interaction between culture, civilization and art rather than the quoting of dates, people and artificial style names.  I like to believe that science, engineering and government build civilizations but art defines civility. Calista was much the same way; she just could not stand the requirement that the student parrot some name and date on a stupid fill-in-the-blanks examination. Unfortunately, her marks reflected her attitude.

The climax came at her art history final. She arrived home in tears cursing the professor in truly unlady-like language. The crux of the waterfall of foul language was something about a baptistry somewhere in Italy. When I finally got the gyst of the problem, it seems that her professor had the audacity to ask her to identify a classic example of Romanesque architecture in the form of the baptistry that accompanies the Florence Duomo Cathedral.  I knew the baptistry in question because it was famous for the intricate illustrated metal panels covering its main doors. I had mixed feelings about how much sympathy I should have for Calista: on one hand she was being asked to recognize a prime example of a famous architectural form, on the other hand the professor gave bonus points for giving the nick-name of the baptistry in question (as if names are really ever important to memorize; that's what text-books are for). I was even more mixed on the topic when I examined her text-book and recognised that the professor had just lifted the question and photograph directly out of the text.  On one hand I had a daughter that had spent so little time with the subject text that she did not remember a picture that consumed a quarter of the title page of a chapter, while on the other hand I had a professor with so little creativity that she felt obliged to lift questions directly from the text-book. It was a dead heat as far as I was concerned, so I did what every passive-aggressive has done throughout history. I found something else to do and kept my mouth shut.

Calista passed art history, but needless to say her expertise never ran to Romanesque architecture or Renaissance art.

I related this story as an explanation of why she thrived in the professional photograpy program at North Island College.  Calista was never one to believe in "learning for learning's sake".  She had no value for high-school trigonometry, algebra, or calculus. She instincitively knew that she would never use that stuff again (something we adults learn but never admit to our teen-agers). Calista needed to see immediate utility to everything she learned; once she was aware of the falacy that there is any use for traditional wrote learning, she just stopped trying. In the professional photography program at North Island College everything she was learning (with perhaps exception of the photographic history course) had immediate utility.  She could see the point of doing it, so she thrived.

I think, perhaps, that might be part of the problem here with the grief counselling: Roni and I can see through the smoke and mirrors of the process. We understand that the counselling process is basically put in place to convince the bereaved to hang in there long enough for that immediate razors edge of pain to dull a bit.  If the counselor can string you along just long enough with reams of useless literature and pointless exercises, by the time you figure out that they are trying to fool you, you have found your legs again and have decided to live.  The point the counselors are missing is that we will live through this, but it is just going to be one long tedious chore which will  only end well; any ending to this life will be a relief to both Roni and I.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Five Weeks, One Day: Graduation Day

Today, June 22nd 2012, was Calista's graduation from her professional photography program. The only outstanding assignment is her completed portfolio and that will be submitted next Wednesday, to be returned on the Friday.  The college awarded her a certificate (I am pretty sure all the students passed despite the fact their last assignment was still not submitted) and I received it at the tail end of a very long ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance.  Amanda and Kareen were there beside us, hoping to dull the edge of sadness with their support.  Both Roni and I find the presence of young women about Calista's age comforting and uplifting. We were all laughing because the ceremony was exactly the sort of thing that Calista would hate and avoid; she would have likely been out shooting with her favourite instructor Boomer and her best friends Amanda, Kareen and Jesse. Unfortunately death intervened, they all missed the shoot with Boomer, and at least two of them still had to suffer through the grad ceremonies. Now that is irony.

Despite the fact the ceremony was really quite long and, typical of all graduation ceremonies, a wee bit tedious, I found myself just about breaking down completely emotionally.  The stress of the last five weeks has been building and this was pretty much the limit of what I could endure.  It goes back to that first day; one of the first obsessions I embraced during those early hours was that we HAD to complete Calista's degree for her. I remember blubbering and crying to the grief counsellor how Calista hated leaving things unfinished and that, as her father, it was now my responsibility to try to finish up her life as best I could. Finishing her degree honestly by submitting all her outstanding assignments became one of my reasons for not committing suicide. Today that all came to a climax and all I could think of was that I wanted to hold up her certificate and say, loudly, "We got it done, kiddo, we got it done".  Unfortunately, just mouthing those words silently to myself broke me down, sitting there in the front row of a filled arena, in full view of perhaps a thousand strangers. Thank goodness the lights were down low. I am actually nearly blind with tears right now as I type; the graduation and the submission of her portfolio are really the last things I can do for Calista directly; everything I do from here on will be about preserving her memory. All those years in front of me and nothing new; everything from here will just be stirring up the dust.

I should give you some brightness and light today; graduations are supposed to be a celebration of success. Calista did succeed here and that deserves celebration and some happiness.  For that, we should have some stories about how great she really was.

One of the major reasons that Roni and I never had any other children, Scout's honour, was that Calista was just about the easiest child ever. Roni and I discussed it this morning; she was just so easy that we dreaded what would happen if we had another child and it turned out to be one of those difficult, colicky kids that are hard to like much less love. It sounds like a stupid reason when I write it now, but twenty years ago, when we were drowning in debt and barely getting by, it made perfect sense.  But how easy was Calista?

Calista started sleeping over 8 hours each night after the first five or six weeks.  Well, maybe I am fibbing a bit there. After six weeks of sleeping in a bassinet (OK, it was more like a laundry basket)  next to me, Calista started to sleep in the nursery. After that, I am not so sure that we didn't just start sleeping through the night despite her hungry cries. Having said that, we did have to wake her up for morning feedings once in a while. We hated waking her up; to the day she died she was really quite grumpy when she first woke up (remember her last words were "Oh God, It's too early" or something to that effect).

About those feedings though; here is the first time I admit that Princess Calista was not absolutely perfect.  When she was a baby she was a bit of a glutton.  We planned on feeding her small amounts very frequently, but from the very first she would down 4 to 6 ounces from a bottle in one long slurp and then scream bloody murder until she was given a second 4 ounce bottle. There were times when our entire fridge looked like dairy aisle at the local 7-11.  Of course, this gluttony posed a major problem, as any parent can tell you. The average baby is just about full at about 4 ounces and full to bursting at 8 ounces.  More often than I want to admit, Calista would projectile vomit all over the kitchen, the nursery, the living room or the car. Wherever she happened to be sitting when the geyser blew. We always knew when she was about to blow though; she would look terribly uncomfortable, screw up her face and let a big burp go.  If we were lucky, we would have time to aim her away from us, but often there was no such luck.  Certainly, if the baby-sitter had just arrived and we were trying to get to a movie or a dinner out, you had to know that she was going to puke without warning all over whomever was holding her at the time.  Of course, after her stomach was decompressed, she would give us all the biggest, happiest toothless smile you have ever seen on any baby.

Somewhere around 2 or 3 months of age we had to start her on some solid food since the liquid diet just was not calorie rich enough for her.  It was telling that she was below the 50th percentile the day she was born and above the 90th percentile by three months of age.  That girl could pack on the pounds when she wanted to. She was always heavier than she looked; a truly solidly built Amazon of a girl.  Even the funeral director commented that her ashes were a lot heavier than expected. Glad to see she stayed true to character right past the end.

In her early years Calista would eat anything her parents were eating. If it was going into our mouth, it must be the best thing to eat ever.  Coffee, beer (non-alcoholic in those days), cookies, ice-cream, guacamole; you name it, she would eat it.  One year when Calista was under 2, Roni and I managed to save enough money to take our long awaited Hawaiian honeymoon. We carted her all over Maui with us, frequenting many local restaurants and beaches with this happy little rug-rat.  We finally found this fantastic Mexican restaurant in a little mountain town called Makawao (sp.?). The tavern had a tin roof that rattled loudly when it rained (and it did that frequently since it was just on the edge of the rainy side of the island) and a really fantastic menu that I loved (Roni not so much).  In those days, Calista would down Mexican food happily, but missed her mouth with her spoon as often as she hit it.  We took a picture of her with her feet up on the table (her high chair hooked onto the table somehow) and re-fried beans smeared on her face from chin to hair-line.  I had planned to pull that photo out when she finally brought that special someone home to meet the parents; just for the fun of bringing the princess down a few notches.  I guess I will be missing that opportunity now; but I really need to find that photo now; it is one of my favourite memories of her.  Her grin in that picture is truly infectious (I am smiling right now just thinking about it).

That Hawaiian trip also was a big watermark for Calista; she learnt how to walk while we here in Maui.  To this day I swear I remember EXACTLY the moment the lights went on for her about walking.  She was a bit behind the curve with regards to walking; I think she was about 14 or 15 months old and had not even tried to walk. Our doctor had told us not to worry and that every child has their own schedule, so we really had not paid any attention to the whole issue.  Anyway, we were down at the beach enjoying the sun (yes indeed, we did let our daughter sun-tan at 14 months; we were bad) and it was creeping up on time to go home and feed the princess. We were just packing up and I looked over at Calista to see her watching another child about her age who was about fifteen yards down the beach.  I could see that Calista was really intent on the baby, but I assumed that she was just scoping out a potential play-pal.  The thing that caught my eye was just how intense she was watching that baby, who was just walking clumsily around her parents, obviously still trying to master the art of walking (on soft sand no less). I thought very little about the whole issue and returned to packing up all our stuff to head back to the apartment. 

Once back at our small condo, Roni busied herself getting some chow assembled for our small eating machine and I was left watching Calista to make sure she stayed away from the open balcony doors.  I turned my back for maybe one second and when I looked back, there was Calista standing on two feet in the middle of the living room (I missed how she stood up completely). She looked at me and proceeded to run (not walk) as fast as she could into my knees, practically knocking herself down on impact.  After that moment, Calista ran just about everywhere. I am not really sure she actually learnt to walk for another four or five months. She just ran all the time. To this day I swear that she learnt how to walk in that one moment down on the beach in Maui.  I am sure that intent look on her face was the moment the light came on and she realised that there was a much better way of getting around than crawling.

You know. all this remains completely unbelievable to both Roni and I.  Sure, I have a notarised death certificate.  Her obituary has been published in three newspapers for a total of six publications. I have ashes in a brass urn. We have had a memorial service. The police, coroner and pathologist have all confirmed her death. We have close to a hundred condolence cards.  And I still expect to see her smiling face come walking through that front door tomorrow, the next day, or maybe before the end of the month.  How can that girl who I caught as she ran into my knees 19 years ago be gone? How can somebody so alive be dead when somebody so dead like I am now continues to breath? Where is the damn justice in that?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Four Weeks, six days: Random Bits and Pieces

Tomorrow or the next day I will be able to talk about my Calista again. By then the jagged edge will be a bit duller, I hope. It should be since I have been sawing away at my heart with the razor edge of that sorrow for a few days now. The post-memorial blues are ruling at my house; Roni is a bit snappy these days as she is realising that we, us two, are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes our loss. I want to share my daughter with the world, let everyone know how great she was and spread her presence across the planet; Roni wants to fold her arms around Calista's memory and hold her close to her heart, fearful that parting with even one small part of her is some sort of abandonment. It has made for a few tense moments around the house. Luckily both of us tend to be passive aggressive and avoid direct conflict like a gorilla avoids open water.

In the worst of times, it is amazing where support can come from and where it fails. I now realise that there are people I never cared much for that are really quite wonderful, while others that I thought were friends that are strangely silent.  Hard times bring out ones true character.

Possibly the most touching monologue at Calista's memorial was that of her tattoo artist. Yes, my daughter had her own tattoo artist. Van is a tall, slim, bearded fellow that would look very appropriate astride a heavily-chromed Harley in full leathers. He appeared at the memorial just a little late, but that was just fine by me. He came to pay his respects and that is what matters.  Van had probably had a bit of a trying day since my extended family and friends had filled his roster with memorial tattoos. The overwhelmed tattoo artist had never done that many tattoos in honour of one person in a single day. Van was an emotional basket case throughout most of the memorial statements, but then, out of the blue, he stepped up to the plate and swung a home run.  Van described how Calista had injected herself into his tattoo shop as an aspiring photography student trying to fill her portfolio. Over several days and many hours she picked up the rhythm and feel of the shop, getting some truly memorable images that I must admit I am proud to call my daughter's work.

Calista was not just a quiet observer, she really got to know her subject, interviewing Van in depth about how he got into tattoo artistry and why he loved it.  Van kind of got the feeling that Calista was toying with the idea of becoming a part-time tattoo artist (now that would have knocked old dad on his ass for sure).

Van touched the heart strings of everybody. Here is this rugged-looking tattoo artist and he is crying hard, desperately trying to describe his great sense of loss at Calista's passing.  He described her as a gentle, artistic soul who seemed to be truly interested in him and his art. There was no doubt that he saw her for who she really was, something that people who had known her for years did not recognise. Thank you Van for really getting to know my girl.

I received a condolence card from an old colleague from Regina. In all my years in Regina I never had much to do with this veterinarian; she practised in the north end of the city, I was in the south end and never the twain shall meet.  We had a cordial relationship, but there was really not much interaction.  That wonderful colleague sent a very nice card today and made a donation to my daughter's scholarship.  I compare that to other much closer friends, people who knew Calista very well, who have barely acknowledged her death. One thing I have learnt though is that people are funny about death and loss.

I don't actually attach value to how people have reacted to my daughter's passing. Everybody reacts to tragedies like this completely differently.  Some people dive right into the middle of the disaster, taking control and trying to actively help. Other people merely ask what they can do to help, but then come through and gladly live up to their promise. There are a very few people that make the same offer, but only pay lip service to that offer, and a limited few that just go silent, perhaps hoping that the death will just go away.  Those few people that just turn their backs are not doing anything wrong; they are just acting like a deer caught in the head-lights. Those people may care very much about you, your loss and the deceased, but they just cannot face the they don't.

Sometimes people want to help but they can't simply because a good opportunity as not revealed itself.  One of our neighbours here at the clinic has offered numerous times to give my wife and I any help we need. Maureen has clearly been just aching to step up and save us, but she had just not found anything that she can do. Maureen finally found something she could do for me yesterday.

My air compressor for my dental unit broke down in the middle of a procedure yesterday.  I was really angry about it; we had used the compressor probably less than ten times altogether and I had only bought it two months ago.  I trotted off to Canadian Tire with the compressor and receipt in hand, expecting them just to honour the return policy and give me a replacement. What they had me do was sit in line for twenty minutes while they checked and re-checked their protocol. The teller then sent me up to some rough looking repair and rental shop squatting near the airport to sit for another ten minutes while the guy behind the desk dithered over how long it was going to take to repair it if he could get parts ("Unlikely" he growled).  No lunch for me yesterday and by the time I returned to the clinic I was ready to kill the first person who gave me any grief. In steps Maureen.

As I exited my car, Maureen scurried, grabbed the packages I was juggling and asked how I was. I grouched about my lunch hour being flushed down the toilette as I bounced around town dealing with the compressor. Maureen was shocked that Canadian Tire had not just replaced the compressor rather than fooling with repairs and the like.  I replied I kind of thought that was what should have happened (I mean, just how good can a machine be if it breaks down after only ten uses). Without one word from me Maureen phoned the owner/ manager of the local Canadian Tire on my behalf and, lo and behold, a new compressor was delivered within an hour. People can be so wonderful sometimes. Thanks Maureen.

I have started to re-think my philosophical comments the other day, and as I did contemplate them, I realised I may have found an answer to my question "There must be more".  There might be an infinity of more.

Rob Bryanton, a musician  from Regina, wrote an amazing book "Imagining the Tenth Dimension". His book is matched by a truly over-the-top web site of the same name.  "Imagining the Tenth Dimension" is a simplified discussion of theoretical physic's "String Theory" and how it leads to the possibility of a ten dimensional universe.  I am not sure I understand much of the book; Rob obviously is an intellectual giant, but I got some of the important points down pat.  According to string theory, there are an infinite number of possible universes co-existing with our reality.  Different time-lines, different Earths, different Solar systems and whole different Universes. There are "Earths" that are practically identical to this Earth and planets that inhabit the same space/ time co-ordinates but are so different from this Earth that they are not truly Earth. There are Earths where the dinosaurs still rule and Earths where the rats developed into the dominant sentient being rather than a primate. Most importantly there is some Earth out there practically identical to our Earth but differing in one most important factor: Calista is still alive in that Earth. Perhaps she is lost to this world, but in that other world some Bryce gets to see his girl fully bloom. In that world there will be a full career, a special someone and hopefully little rug-rats that can make that Bryce feel young again.

That solution to my break in faith may seem a little lame, but certainly there is all sorts of science to back it. If renowned scientists can have some faith that  a "multiverse" is a real possibility (probability?) then I too can have some faith. Now, of course, this little leap of faith does nothing for me personally unless somebody can invent a machine that allows me to make the quantum jump from this dimension to the appropriate alternative universe, but it does give me something to paint on my wounds when I am ready to have faith in the fairness of the world again.  Unfortunately if I ever do make that quantum jump, I will have to do my observations of "other Calista" from a distance, since presumably there will be an "other Bryce" who will be her real father.  My Calista is indeed gone.

How the hell can I learn to live with that. Really.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Four Weeks, Four Days: There Has to be More

I kind of knew that once the memorial was all over and all the families returned home it would be like hitting a wall. That memorial night would signify a turning of the screw; she really is gone and she is not coming back.  Up to Saturday night, before all the wonderful, touching memorials, there was still a chance this was all some cosmic mistake, some horrid, senseless mistake.  Now, forty-eight hours later her bedroom remains dark and empty, her laundry hamper is only filled with my own dirty clothes (our hamper is filled; nothing much is getting done around our house these days), and all her favourite foods are still turning rotten in the fridge. Roni is going to have to learn that neither of us eat apples like a horse.

Roni left her bed for about one hour today; she drove her brother to the airport for his 9 am flight. She did not bother with make-up or even dressing properly. She just pulled some pants over her pyjamas, threw a sweater over top of her sleeping-top and donned some slippers.  Anyone that knows Roni knows that she has not left the house without full make-up and dressed to the nines since she was about 12. Roni only asked for two things be brought to the hospital the day Calista was born: her toothbrush and her make-up box. 

When I finally arrived home from work tonight I found Roni still in Calista's bed, only semi-conscious. The sleeping shirt of Calista's that she has been using as a security blanket was damp with tears and it was clear she had not moved for nearly 24 hours.  I asked if she had even got up to go to the bathroom; she had not, but you don't produce much urine if you do not even get up to take in fluids.  It took me another 30 minutes to get her out of bed and thirty more minutes after that to eat a few mouth-fulls of left-over Chinese food.  I wonder how long a person can live on chow-mein and sweet n' sour pork. She did have a couple of glasses of chocolate milk, so I guess she is at least getting her calcium.

Roni, I can comfortably say, is in a real nose dive and will likely crash if I cannot turn this plane around.  Unfortunately, it means I yet again have to hold it together for everyone else when what I really want to do is howl at the sky and beat on the first SOB that gives me the slightest reason to lose my cool. I am not sure gratuitous violence is all that appropriate right now and I rather doubt if the RCMP would accept the excuse that I am in mourning, but to tell you the truth I am just aching to round off on somebody right now. Anybody. 

Whenever I am faced with overwhelming anger, waxing philosophical seems to calm my savage beast.  I re-read some of my blog today and I realise that only a masochist could read the entire blog from head to tail.  Some of those passages were just so incredibly raw that I could only read short sections before my vision blurred to blindness with the tears.  It is telling that I cannot re-read the first few entries; that would be just like reliving those days and I will not do that ever unless it looks like this blog may be publishable as a book.( This blog as a book; that is an idea; it could feed the scholarship fund.) Perhaps I should take a break from the brutal emotional attack and look at the bigger picture of the here and after.

Is there, could there, might there be something more than just this Earthly plane of existence? Losing Calista has made me seriously reconsider that question in a way that I never seriously did before. Truthfully I always considered heaven, hell, re-incarnation, and ghosts something that only belongs in Hollywood.  In my reality the Earth is a ball of spinning dirt orbiting the Sun and inhabited by a myriad of living creatures who compete for reproductive supremacy.  In my world, once you breed, you become redundant and may live or die without any true consequence to the existence of the universe. The individual in my world is of little consequence; we come, we go and history takes little notice of our passing.  Losing Calista, the one person that I valued more than anything including myself, has made me reconsider everything.  It just seems so unfair that individual of such unique fabric can pass from this Earth without some contingency plan on Mother Nature's part. 

So is there really a heaven where the good live in bliss surrounded by their loved ones and living in comfort? Well, let's all think about this for just a moment.  If my daughter travelled to heaven, the only member of her extended family that she even slightly knew was my father. If those two met in heaven they might be able to have an extended conversation about the weather on the first day of eternity, then things would get pretty boring. Then, of course Calista could shmooze with her myriad of distant relatives that she barely knew or never met: my uncle who was a pretty cool dude in his time, my grandmother who was distant at the best of times, my great-aunt who she never met and then all the progressively distant relatives that I never met. Where would this all stop? Perhaps some vaguely simian ancestor from about a million years ago would turn out to be her favourite spiritual ancestor.  Maybe that same monkey ancestor would be every body's favourite ancestor and you would have billions of angels all arguing over who gets to play bocci-ball with him next.  Don't we all see the problem here: we are all connected somehow and if there is one heaven, then it must be a pretty crowded house by now.  That just does not work either logically or philosophically for me.

Then there is the idea of re-incarnation. Now that is a bit more believable, except for the issue of the ever-increasing human population. In the eastern religions there is a thought that a person current incarnation is a reflection of his past life. If that person was a really excellent dog, then he gets to be re-incarnated as a human on the next go-round. If the person was a truly despicable human, he comes back as a lowly mosquito (to presumably get swatted by some Saskatchewan born fisherman).  The idea here would be that there is a constant number of souls on the planet, they just cycle through the biological entities.  There are two problems here: first would be that by some crooked logic humans of intrinsically more valuable than other species (a human more valuable than a blue whale or an elephant? Really? In what way?). The second problem would be that the ever increasing number of humans infesting Earth would suggest that souls are progressively evolving into more enlightened entities.  Oh sure; I can see that. Take for example the murderer that was just brought back to Canada for the horrendous crime of killing his friend, dismembering him and mailing his body parts to all points of the Canadian map. He really evolved from the homicidal swamp alligator of his last incarnation. Then there is the question of where do the enlightened humans go?

Richard Bach wrote the classic "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" back in 1970, at the height of the marijuana and LSD driven hippy revolution.  Basically, through a tale of death, re-incarnation and resurrection, he suggests that the evolving soul does not return to this planet as an evolved being but returns to another plane of existence where the enlightened soul finds new challenges to help him reach new levels of reality. Jonathan is a revolutionary bird who chooses not to move on, but to return to his original world and help other beings find enlightenment. Jonathan is a prophet or a messiah.  Mr. Bach had a wonderful point of view, but I am pretty sure that he also enjoyed a lot of the golden weed while he typed out his mystical tale.  He also had a very good publicist.  The whole issue still revolves around the number of souls versus the number of organics (unless a chunk of rock has a soul, then things may even out). What happens when you have a huge, extinction level die off? Where do all the souls get parked then? Limbo? Purgatory?

We could consider the LDS Church solution to the problem: good little souls get to become a messiah or God on their own little planet off in the universe. That solution would be something like a cross between Richard Bach's Seagull Evolution Theory and the Judeo-Christian-Islam Heaven variant.  Of course we would have to assume that those planets out there in the galaxy did not already have their own sentient being souls competing for Godhood (and there was not a whole raft of enlightened sentient souls from other Earth-like planets fighting for Godhood too).  Then there is the problem of real-estate: there are only so many inhabitable planets out there in the universe and there seems to be an unlimited number of souls floating around. Even if only one soul in twenty qualifies for Godhood, you still run out of planets eventually, and to be truthful, the majority of people I meet are pretty decent. In my book, most of us would qualify for Godhood, though some of us would be lesser Gods (me, I probably would get to be Lord of the Flies and end up with my head on a stick).

How about ghosts? Maybe Calista is out there, floating around trying to finish some business with us before she moves on (presumably to her own little planet in the Delta quadrant where she can be the Goddess of cute shoes). Now there is a truth that I would love to entertain. Maybe my girl is watching me as I type this missive, guiding my fingers to make my prose "prettier" (she likes pretty). On the other hand, where is she now when her mother is shattered? If she would just tottle her butt on over to the house and give her mother a little nudge to get out of bed, feed herself, maybe clean herself up, put on a little make-up and brush her hair, it would make all the difference to her mother's survival. It would not take much; just a pleasant dream where Calista told her to live on and stop worrying, that she would be waiting for her when Roni had lived her full life expectancy. I'm not asking much here.  As far as trying to finish things up, well which things might we be referring to? She was only twenty years of age; she left everything unfinished. Her whole damn life was unfinished! The injustice of all this goes way, way beyond the pale.

Dante Alighieri describes, in his opus "Inferno", the nine levels of hell.  Dante text was more than just a religious discussion, it was also a political satire of the current Italian-Florentine political landscape.  In Dante's hell, the denizens were any number of recognisable members of the current ruling class. (Don't be too impressed; I read the Cole's Notes on the book; if you have ever actually read Italian Renaissance prose you would know the Italians abandoned art at the desk and just tried to kill their audience with boredom). I have referred to losing Calista as a form of hell, and, indeed, it really is. Roni and I feel completely redundant in this world; all we can see ahead of us is years upon years of continued sorrow.  We just cannot see how we can walk our way out of this, one step at a time or otherwise. Even economically, if we died now our collective life insurance policies and liquidation of our assets would fund Calista's scholarship program handsomely.  We really are redundant. On the other hand, we need not fool ourselves; there are whole levels of hell below us that I cannot even imagine.

Just below us are the parents that lost their children to kidnappers; I have to think this is worse than our situation since we at least know where our girl is, but it would be somewhat mitigated by the ongoing (mostly faulty) hope that the child is alive somewhere out there, fighting their captors to return to their parent's fold. Below that level by many feet would be the hell reserved for parents that had children molested and murdered.  I cry at any suggestion that my Calista was aware of her imminent demise for even one moment, how must a parent feel when they know their child was suffering, tortured, violated and and terrified during their last moments. This would be a whole new version of hell and in itself just begs for the death penalty to child molesters.  Finally, that last level of hell would be reserved for parents that caused their own child's death either intentionally or through mishap.  The infanticide parents usually fix their problem by killing themselves at the time (though there does seem to be the odd few that just kill the kid and smile; those people are the devil incarnate and deserve the same penalty as paedophiles). The parents that made a mistake driving or neglected their child for just a moment (as, truthfully, we all have at one time or the other) have to live with the fact they killed their own blood, their own little piece of heaven on Earth. That would be a very long life indeed.

Certainly things could be worse for Roni and I, but we certainly do have our own version of Dante's Inferno: the hell reserved for parents who lose a child to Divine punishment (the death without any evidence of cause). How do we face this? Right now we are merely standing (or, in Roni's case, laying in the foetal position) like deer in the headlights, letting life wash by us and waiting for the next disaster to happen.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Four Weeks, Three Days: Au Revoir but not Good-bye

The memorial art show was last night and, for the most part, it was exactly what I wanted; mostly up-beat and a celebration of my girl's life rather than a continuation of the overwhelming  grief that everyone is feeling.  Personally I have to keep on reminding myself that it has been only just over four weeks. Time is playing funny tricks on me; in one moment it feels like just yesterday I hugged her for the last time as she left for Courteney, yet in another moment it seems like decades since Cst. Kenning told me that he had the worst news a parent can ever hear. I think King wrote a short story on this topic: when you are suffering time passes slowly yet when you are happy time is fleeting. In truth, time is just an illusion that is also our most precious commodity.  My girl taught me that: waste not one moment because time is the only resource you cannot accumulate. I will share much of the memorial over the next few posts, but tonight is about spending time with my wife and her family and trying to make this right with the rest of the world (it will never be right with me).  Here are some notes from the memorial that are worth sharing. I hope you appreciate the sentiments.

Opening Statements from Roni and Bryce)

            One of the last assignments Calista had to produce for her professional photography business course was something mysteriously named an “elevator pitch”.  Roni and I found that assignment on her computer hard-drive about a week after her death at the request of her business instructor; much to my dismay the entire assignment consisted of one paragraph, perhaps five short sentences.  Not completely understanding what the assignment was about, I spent two more days searching her computer, her note books, two flash-drives, and a couple of portable hard-drives, absolutely sure that there had to be more to the paper.  This search was all for not.

            It seems that an “elevator pitch” is an ultra-short description of what your photography business is all about, what your particular speciality might be and what you might bring to the table as a photographer.  It was supposed to be one paragraph long, since that is about all you might get out if you happened to have to make a business pitch on an elevator.

 I hoped to make this some sort of elevator pitch, but how do you encapsulate the life of your one great love?

            From the moment Calista was born, Roni and I knew that we loved her far more than we loved each other. She was the centre of our world and everything we have done for the last twenty years has been about her; our geographic moves, our career moves, even our time off were all organized around her schedule. Our summer vacations were often long road trips to attend some summer swim camp, while Christmas was always at home so we could properly spoil our girl with a ridiculous wealth of gifts.  Even the odd afternoon off from work was usually scheduled so Calista would have one of us watching her competitive swimming work-out.  I personally alienated at least three coaches offering unsolicited advice or criticism.  As parents Roni and I were a teacher’s worst nightmare; our girl always had both of us in her corner, no matter how silly our girl might have been. 

            I like to believe that our unqualified support and love of our girl helped produce the wonderful, unique human that Calista truly was.   Calista was independent and self-determined. She was neither follower nor leader; she was her own woman and damn proud of it.  Calista walked to the beat of her own drum  and yet had the gracious tolerance to allow everyone around her to hear their own drums.  Calista saw no reason to make people see things her way; as far as she was concerned everyone around her was more than welcome to do things the wrong way.  Roni and I treasured her independent nature and would not have had her any other way.

            Anyone that has been following my harrowing “Blog” will know that I am having real trouble describing my girl. Some of my memories are still too raw, many are too private, and some of them are only half clear through the fog of grief.  I hope that this gathering tonight, surrounded by her art and that of her close friends will help Roni and I form warm memories for the future and perhaps recall warm memories of my Calista from the past.  Please share freely, laugh lots and cry very little for we are here to enjoy her life hopefully as much as she did, if for just a short few moments.

Jack Cowin, Calista's Mentor for her last 18 months in Regina sent this letter for her memorial. It starts slowly, but packs a painful punch at the end. Everyone cried.

My name is Jack Cowin, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Regina, Visual Arts Department.  In 2007, after 36 years of teaching, I found myself retired, in other words, no graduate students, research assistants or students...period.  I had no one to whom to pontificate, with the exception of three hunting dogs, one plagued with a recurrent skin condition.  Enter the Flemings.
                I don’t remember exactly what lead to this first encounter (I believe my wife mentioned to Bryce, in passing, that I was an artist) but it lead to a visit in my studio with Bryce (equipped with tape recorder) and Calista.  I subsequently agreed to view Calista’s portfolio of work and give a critical opinion.
                Before going any further, one must realize that everyone in Regina is an artist, hence I needed to tread carefully so as not to step on any toes.  It was more necessary to encourage as opposed to being too critical.  At first look the 2-dimensional work was competent for a beginning university student; some talent and skills, but nothing to knock the world from its axis until, almost as an afterthought, she presented the photographic portion of the portfolio.  There was something inherent in that work that could be built upon.  However, should she choose this type of work it would mean swimming at the other end of the Art pool, away from the study of painting, sculpture and printmaking.  The burning question: could she, would she want to walk this path?
                This pursuit will be difficult here, because the University of Regina is the only university in Canada without a Photo area of study.  Serious study would necessitate study elsewhere.  She will have to make that decision on her own.  It will take 2 more meetings, complete with new assigned drawings, work and critiques before I can pose the real question about the new strategy for her work.  She is coming sans parent by this time and talk is frank.  Her answer:  YES.  By doing this, she is now in the pool by herself, and since I am the one throwing her in, it is up to me to come up with a plan of action and a life vest.  She will need to complete her art education somewhere other than the University of Regina.
                My answer is a mentorship program aimed at creating a body of work (portfolio of photography) for the move, whenever that should occur.  It will require time and much work on both her part and mine.  The rules of mentorship are simple: no money exchanges hands, you show up at appointed times work in hand, attend crits.  Violators will be released!  My part will be somewhat more difficult in that I have to ready her for entrance with a professional-looking portfolio of work.  Little did I realize that, after working with her for just a few short months, it would be a much easier task than anticipated.  I did not tell her this.  We meet, we talk, we critique the work and I assign more problems, all toward the goal of completing the entrance portfolio.  Time passes and a huge amount of work has accumulated.  I thank God for the invention of digital cameras, laptops and Photoshop!  We never had to enter the darkroom.
                Calista wants this all to happen quickly and works even more diligently, much more than most graduate students I have supervised in university.  She approached this body of work with complete originality and her own constructs, one being that pink is a primary color.  She had an ownership of the work that was unique for a person her age.  Her abilities far-reached the typical point and click photography most students fall into, having seen and read too many photo magazines.  Her work entered a new classification: ART.  Time passed quickly and a wonderful body of work was produced.  She was ready to move on, my diamond in the rough.  I have given her what I can and it’s now time for someone else to apply the final polished touches.  Unfortunately, that is mentorship and it sucks.
                Calista would now have to find a school that would satisfy her career needs.  Thirty-six years of teaching had provided me with many contacts and I had already cited 3 top schools in North America that would take her sight unseen.  But ultimately it will be her work that guarantees entrance.  My reputation and I stand behind her.  Remember, it was I who threw her into the deep end of the pool.  My choices were far and away from Regina and her family, and it will ultimately be her and her family’s choice.
                I learned that the family has decided to move to Powell River, BC.  With this revelation I lose my student and a vet, all in one foul swoop.  But Calista is ready for the next chapter in her life with a solid portfolio, a letter of recommendation and a school in mind.
                Our final meeting at my studio is one of sharp jabs and counter punches;  18 months of no-holds-barred mentorship has lead to this, but now, as  I look back on these times, they were the best.  As she leaves, I tell her that I will be here if the need arises.  I will also be present, be it her first one-man show or her first boxing match.
                This past Christmas I received a package from Calista containing a letter detailing news and her progress of school.  Most notably, however, within the packet, are three black and white, old-school photographs showcasing her newly-acquired darkroom skills.  The 1st was a landscape, an homage to Ansell Adams (Calista was not in awe of landscape).  The 2nd was that of a blue jay (actually, a straw Christmas ornament) sitting in a tree, making  it look as if it was in a real, setting (a direct shot at me and my wildlife photography skills).  The last was a photo of roller skates.  Though a black and white photo, I could see the pink coming through to the surface.  All was well in BC.  It was obvious my student was in good hands.  All was well with the world.
                It is now May 18th when, out of the blue, comes a call from our former  vet and old friend, Doc Randall, informing us of Calista’s passing May 17th.  Mary speaks with Jim through most of the conversation as I am too stricken with grief to speak.
                What can I possibly say that will bring comfort in this time of need?  I have no point of reference.  Both Mary’s and my heart are breaking and our thoughts go out to Bryce and Roni.
                I’ve spent many sleepless nights thinking about Calista, her family, her work and what I might say in this remembrance of her.  At the end, I am continually drawn to one piece of work that she gave me before leaving.  It was one of the assigned problems in which it was necessary to work with nature and make it your own.  The photo is a full-body portrait of a ground squirrel holding a taco chip that is nuclear pink in color, pure Calista.  No one but another artist could truly understand the amount of work contained in this simple photograph.  It was not found or happened upon, it was crafted with skill in the same manner a painter approaches a canvas.   I look upon this squirrel as I struggle to write.  Art is my safe place, devoid of words, a calm I need now. 
                I will miss you Calista, it was always a pleasure and privilege to work with you.  And the Art world will surely miss a bright, shining star darkened far too soon.

And finally, my closing at the memorial. I am so sorry, I hoped that it would close with some peaceful, memorable statement that mitigated her death somehow.  I keep on reminding myself that this is not just about me and despite the fact that Roni and I will never heal from this, we still have to try to heal everyone around us that were hurt by her death. Especially all her young friends that can learn to live like Calista: make every moment count. Unfortunately it just made everyone cry. I guess my calling is tragedy.

Closing at Memorial
Some of you may know that Calista was a fan of tattoos.  She loved tattoos since she was four when she called them “dadoos”.  Since Roni and I have several tattoos spread between the two of us, we could hardly prohibit her from getting any body art, but we had the firm rule that she had to wait until she was over 19 before she had any work done. As far as we were concerned, after she was 19 it was her body and her life and all we would do is offer guidance and support.
Unbeknownst to me, Calista had planned to eventually have “full sleeves”.  I am not sure I would have supported that altogether, but I also know that if I had said something she would have shrugged her shoulders in typical Calista fashion and gone ahead with her plan regardless. My concerns were about people’s perception of a young beautiful woman covering her arms with permanent art work and, of course, Calista was just never concerned with society’s perception of her.   For Calista you were either one of her people and she loved you or you were not one of her people and she was completely apathetic about your opinion of her. That is just the way she was.
My daughter’s first tattoo was a short quote lifted from the first “Harry Potter” book. The quote is “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”.  I am not sure why she chose that statement since it certainly is not a pivotal quote in the text, but I assume that she took it as her own personal version of the latin “Carpe Diem”, or “Seize the Day”.  It certainly can be read like that.
On the other hand, for us left behind, I believe we need to look at the quote in its full context.  The statement is made by the headmaster of Harry’s school upon finding Harry mesmerized by a magical mirror that allows him to see the living images of his long dead parents. The teacher is reminding Harry that he cannot spend his life dreaming of what could have been had his parents survived; Harry needed to live in the real world.  There is a lesson for all of us there, especially Roni and I.
I think we all feel robbed by Calista’s death. Friendships barely started, careers hardly begun, son-in-laws I will never have and grandchildren I will never see are all dreams that must be let go if we are going to move on.  We need not discard our pleasant memories; we should treasure them as gifts from a girl who seemed to enjoy every moment of her short and beautiful life. We just need to remember that it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. In fact, we all need to live more, see more, enjoy more because the only way Calista lives now is through the accomplishments of those who knew her and loved her.
In my life, I always learned the most from my mistakes. Some wise men call this the “School of Hard Knocks”.  It is kind of ironic that in this case, the hardest of all knocks, I learned from what I did right. Roni and I have no regrets about our relationship with Calista. There are no words left unsaid, no harsh words to be forgiven. We always made sure our girl knew we were proud of her and that she was loved unconditionally.  My words to Calista as she left home that last time were “I love you kiddo. Thanks for coming home this weekend. You are always welcome here”.  It was about the same thing I always said when she returned to college. Make sure the loved one’s in your life know they are loved and you are proud of them; sometimes tomorrow is too late to tell them so.


Friday, 15 June 2012

Four Weeks, One Day: On the Eve of the End

The memorial is tomorrow and I will be off  from writing, licking my wounds for at least a day.  Funny, I thought that there would be more calm acceptance by this time. I thought that I would be able to speak for my Calista, maybe tell a few amusing stories and get right into the "celebration of life" theme. I rather doubt that will happen. If anything, as the memorial approaches I am becoming progressively more anxiety filled and far more emotional. It takes next to nothing to set either Roni or I off right now; there are huge mood swings between anger, denial, and sorrow. I really need to steel myself or, as my darling daughter would say often, "suck it up and get it done".

Jack Cowin came through for Calista in a big way.  Jack, a very well known wildlife artist, had mentored Calista for nearly 18 months and was a huge part of her finding her way into professional photography. Jack and Calista had such an amusing relationship: he played the stern task-master and she the recalcitrant apprentice.  He would tell her that the first assignment she missed would be her last assignment from him and she would grouch about the big mean ol'man affectionately. He gave her 3 months before she quit, she lasted 18 months before she moved west with us. It could have been a sit-com.

Jack donated not just one but four original etchings; you could still smell the ink on the art.  If I manage to sell them in the right market, that represents over two thousand dollars that will go to the scholarship fund. That is a significant donation.  I believe I will be able to offer the buyer a big discount on those etchings since they will just make the cheque directly payable to the North Island College Foundation and call it a tax-deductible donation. It would be a win-win situation.

Jack also wrote an incredibly touching memorial to Calista.  I always thought that my daughter was the most talented, beautiful and wonderful girl in the world, but it really drove home her potential to hear it from Jack.  The memorial starts off quite slowly as Jack describes academically how he came to mentor Calista and how it became a bit of a bridge into retirement from his university professorship. He worked his way through his discovery that Calista had a natural eye for photographic composition and into how he helped groom her to follow her own natural talents to create truly unique photographs. It is the last three or four paragraphs that just about killed Roni and I. I had printed off two copies of Jack's letter and we were reading them simultaneously; we both broke down and cried as we finished the letter.  Roni and I are so in tune about this that neither of us felt the need to tell each other why were crying.  The tragedy of such potential being lost before it fully bloomed.  It's like cutting an orchid bloom just as it forms a bud. Thank-you Jack; you memorialised Calista perfectly; you understand the travesty here.

The relatives are all arriving from the corners of the globe. Roni's family filled the house last night, most of them staying elsewhere but still hob-nobbling until nearly midnight.  I have finally learnt to tell people right away that they need not try to find any comforting words; their presence alone is enough and truthfully, there are no words sufficient to the task.  That is really something that is a recurrent theme I hear from every member of the Club of the Damned; people want to express in words their support and everyone fails miserably but we forgive them because they cared enough to try and they stood beside us. That's all you can do so it has to be enough.

I so wanted this memorial to be a celebration of a nearly perfect life well lived.  I really wanted an upbeat, optimistic soiree with beautiful photographs and amusing stories about a unique character.  Unfortunately, as the time approaches I now realise that the memorial represents the beginning of the end. Up to this point I was busy organising, planning, and booking memorial details, but after this point I am going to have to admit that she really is dead and gone.  It is still possible to fool yourself into thinking she will wander through the front door with a massive bag of dirty laundry and a huge grin as her only apology as long as you have not officially said good bye.  Unfortunately, that is what a memorial really is; a formal goodbye to a loved one. After that point everything else will be just labelling things and putting them into long term storage.  I am really not ready to say good-bye, but then who am I fooling; I am never going to be ready to say good-bye. Hell, I was the one that was supposed to leave her behind, not the other way around. That is the way the world is supposed to work , Goddamn it.

I wrote the hospital yesterday, basically accusing them of intentional neglect of their responsibilities.  I told them I was going to have my own family review the entire file and if anything wrong happened at that hospital that prevented them from reviving her I would find it.  I suspect that between my brother the orthopaedic surgeon, my brother the anaesthesiologist and my brother the crown-prosecutor the will find that something wrong if is there to be found.  The letter is more the product of my angry state of mind, but it is really amateurish that the hospital that pronounced my daughter dead did not even have the decency to send me a note of condolence.  I doubt much will come of the letter, but if the doctors involved lose a couple of nights sleep over it, well then I guess it sucks to be them.

I better lay off today and head for the ferry docks. I am crossing the wide blue straights for almost the last time to finally lay my girl at rest. My God I miss her.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Three Weeks, Six Days: Fear and Loathing

Just twenty-eight days ago my Calista was enjoying a bar-b-cue. It was one of the first sunny days of late spring after a long spell of rain. There was  a new boy interested in her, she was winding down her professional photography course, she had done superbly throughout the course, and she was surrounded by good friends. She was playing bocci-ball for the first time and had eaten her fill and, yes, had a couple of drinks. Life was not just good, life was absolutely great.

 Less than twelve hours later her corpse lay cooling on a stainless steel table in the morgue, naked, alone and with not one person who cared for her near.  How the world can turn in a few short hours.

So let me tell you how Roni and I really feel. Let's just cut the crap and get right down to it. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

We feel robbed. We feel bitter. We are terrified for our future and we want someone to blame. We need someone, something to blame.  We need there to be some damn meaning to this other than "she lived and then she died".

The robbery is clear.  Our daughter was our masterpiece. She was the only thing either of us truly valued; we poured everything we had into her and we loved her more than we loved each other. Without her, we have no reason to continue. We were robbed of all true joy; the joy parents feel when their child graduates, lands their first real job, meets their own true love. My wife was robbed of planning a wedding and I was robbed of walking my girl down the aisle (or across the beach).  I will never have a son-in-law to respect or suspect.  Neither of us will get to hold a grand-child, or help raise a second family. We will grow old and bitter as our siblings and friends around us enjoy their extended family into their retirement. Eventually, when one of us passes, the other will be completely alone without one close family member to lean against in our final years.

We are scared at what our life will become. Likely we will have small points of satisfaction and contentment. Finally paying off the mortgage, retiring the loan on our veterinary clinic, maybe even assuring complete funding of Calista's memorial scholarship fund.  Those few moments will be only slightly more satisfying than a good bowel movement. My readers should try to remember the elation you felt on your wedding day or the joy you felt the first time you held any of your newborn children.  Those high points are permanently erased from our lives, replaced by instant coffee moments; all the caffeine, some of the flavour, but tinged with a bitter after-taste.

Neither of us want to travel anymore. The wonders of the world no longer hold any magic for us; it is a grey, grey world. We used to love going to Las Vegas every spring. We would take Calista out of school and Roni and Calista would hunt sales on the boulevard like Elmer Fudd hunts bunnies in the forest.  Calista was planning on going to Las Vegas with us next spring to catch a major photography conference that coincides with my annual veterinary conference. Roni agreed immediately when I suggested we forgo any future trips to Las Vegas. (Vegas without Calista would be pretty hollow and boring). I will get my continuing education via the Internet from now on.

We will do the "grief counselling" that everyone suggests, but unless the counsellor has been in our position, I just cannot see them being much use. The people we have met that are members of this damned club have been the most illuminating (if not much help). The ongoing theme is that it never gets "better", it just gets easier to fake happiness so friends and family stop acting weird around you. Don't get me wrong; I am not ungrateful for the overwhelming outpouring of support we have encountered, but being treated like a fragile village idiot gets a bit tiring after a while.  Of course, there is some truth to my fragility; it takes next to nothing to turn me into a snivelling lump these days.

As the memorial approaches both Roni and I find ourselves becoming progressively more emotional.  The memorial has become a tidemark for us; once we get past Saturday night, we will have to begin the process of saying goodbye to Calista.  The crowds of family and well wishers will thin out, the condolence cards will stop (they pretty much already have anyway), and the long silence in our house will begin.  Of course we will try to fill the hours with small talk, but the conversations will eventually start to drag after we have told and retold all the Calista stories we can remember. Perhaps our shared career at the clinic will fill a few more hours and, if we can manage to pull it off, the annual memorial art show might fill a few moments for two months each year. Really the truth of the matter is that as the long years drag on, there will be nothing much new happening in our lives worth sharing with each other and we will eventually be left staring across an empty table set for three but only seating two. That empty spot at the table reserved for the one that will never come home will only get bigger with time.

The loathing of the entire world continues to grow, especially since the coroner is still unable to explain why a very healthy young woman just stopped living one Thursday morning 27 days ago. I want someone to blame.  It may be unreasonable, and perhaps some high-brass lawyer can explain this, but not one person at the hospital has contacted us. Presumably there was some effort made at the hospital to revive Calista, and you would think that one of those doctors or nurses felt some sorrow that a beautiful young woman died in front of them, but the resounding silence from that end makes a person wonder.  Did they just make some perfunctory effort to save her and then just push her dead body aside as yet another cautionary note of young people partying too hard? Was there even one tear shed? Did any of the doctors even stop to think that he was seeing the end of three lives with the passing of one? Or is there something more sinister at work here; did somebody slip up with my girl and that person is now sitting quiet, hoping the coroner does not find any tell-tale evidence of malpractice? The silence is deafening.

I am beginning to loath people that tell me how they understand how I feel because they lost their father, mother, or mother-in-law just a few years back. Mature people are telling me they lost their mature senior who had lived a paltry 65 or 70 years and comparing that to my daughter who died at 20.  There have even been a few people that compared my sorrow to how they felt when their pet died. It makes me begin to wonder if people have lost all sense of reality.  If there is any doubt about this, let me make it clear: we all die eventually. If you managed to pass through life without experiencing the death of a parent or grand-parent, it is only because you die young yourself, just like Calista. The way the world is supposed to work is that the old die and the young carry on, not the other way around. And take it from a veterinarian; you are supposed to outlive your dog, your cat and all your fish.  Perhaps the only species of pets that can outlive their owners are parrots and turtles; one of those craps all over everything and the other usually just sits still (so it begs the question "how do you tell if it dead or alive"). No, I am sure that the only people that can feel what I feel and know what I know are other member of the "Club of the Damned"

Both Roni and I are really starting to loath all gods and every god.  My daughter just died; she did not have an aneurysm, she did not overdose on drugs, she did not get hit by a drunk driver. Calista's heart just stopped pumping and not one person can explain to me why.  This feels like Divine punishment; Calista was "smote by God".  So a person can either deny the existence of God (and in a world filled with rapists, paedophiles and war criminals that is not so hard to do) or you can damn the deity to your own version of hell. The God took my only child; I can think of a righteous payback but supposedly the Romans already thought of that.   Am I filled with hate right now? Do I completely lack faith? Yes, and I defy even one person to give me a good argument why I should change my attitude. I spit on a God that could kill my girl Calista.

So much anger, yet there is still some degree of denial.  Roni and I both keep on commenting on how unreal this all feels.  We both live in fear that at the memorial, in front of all our friends and family, the reality of it all will come rushing home and we will destroy what was supposed to be a celebration of a short beautiful life.  I personally am afraid what happens the day after the memorial, when all my planning and work is finally at an end.  What will I do after that is gone? How will I then avoid the reality of my new life?

A client commented to me this afternoon that she cannot imagine how horrible this is for Roni and I.  She only has one child, a son, and she does not know what she would do if she lost him.  I told her that it was far worse than she can imagine, so don't even try to go there.  I told her the only benefit of losing your only child is that you no longer worry about living a long life; you rush toward your eventual demise with open arms.  I have no fear of death anymore; death merely means one of two things.  If there is some after-life, I get to see Calista again and perhaps have some lame deity explain why she had to die so young. If there is no after-life and the lights just go out for good, then at least the long lonely night will finally be over.