Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Nine Weeks, One Day: Society, Sexism, and Hypocrisy

Just over two months since Calista left for her Roman holiday. Her schedule was an overnight to Frankfurt, then a quick jump to over the mountains to Milan for a month of following the fashion shows behind the camera lens, then a three week sojourn in Rome just to soak up the atmosphere before finishing her grand tour with four weeks in the Greek Islands. Just to make sure she was properly golden brown before returning home.  That's my story and I am sticking to it. If I tell myself long enough and sincerely enough, that fairy tale will become my reality and this whole nightmare will be over with.  I always told my girl that if you can't impress with brilliance then you should baffle with bullshit; even if the audience is yourself.  I want to be baffled now.

The experience of losing a child is just so much different for a father versus a mother. It must be because that is what everyone has told me.  Father's supposedly rebound faster and are generally less upset by the whole experience. It probably is because women have that special bond with the child; they carried that child for nine months as a foetus and they were the primary care giver for all those years while the husband was really just a third party observer. And really, women are the more empathetic and emotional sex who are the centre of everything good and right in the world.....and if you keep on telling yourself that you will be just as deluded as I am with my Roman holiday scenario.

I guess I should be used to society's blatant sexism when it comes to parenthood by now.  I have dealt with it throughout Calista's life, so why should it be different after her death?  Roni was always the primary legal guardian for all health matters; we were told that this was the normal custom and we could not have "joint" guardianship.  Roni was the only parent allowed access to Calista's bank accounts. I was allowed to deposit into the accounts but I was never even allowed to have the balance on the accounts even one minute after making a substantial contribution to the college account. When asked why, since I was her father, the bank replied that I needed proof that I was a custodial parent before they could give me any access.  I never bothered making that effort; it was far easier to ask Roni to check it next time she was in the bank. In the end Roni was the assumed beneficiary of Calista's estate; it's nice that the bank was at least consistent.

While there is no doubt that I did spend a lot of time at work while Roni did the "At-Home Mom" career track, but that period only covered the first two years we lived in Regina. Prior to our move to Regina my veterinary clinic adjoined our home, so I was pretty much an involved dad.  I was responsible for doctor's visits and vaccination trips, I covered while Roni had some personal time to play racquetball, and I probably fed and changed diapers almost as often as Roni. Ours was an equal opportunity household: if you noticed or smelled a dirty diaper, it was your turn to change.  I even got to be a single dad for a five week stretch when Calista was two while Roni lived with my big sister in Los Angeles to pursue a new career. That five weeks was really great; we had the world's worst nanny (hired on the basis of being the homeliest young woman Roni could find) and Calista and I bonded. We watched untold hours of boxing (my choice) and motorcycle night racing (strangely, her choice) and fell asleep together every night reading some children's books. There is no way anyone can tell me that I was not close with my daughter. That is why it bothers me that people naturally assume that my wife was terribly wounded in this tragedy, while I am just the helpless bystander who has to help her recover.  Who the hell is helping me recover while I help her?

Certainly I have handled my grief differently. I jumped into action almost immediately, planning memorials, starting scholarship funds, writing blogs and organising photo contests. Roni, on the other hand, has withdrawn into herself, stopped eating and generally has become depressed and only minimally functional. People assume that I am recovering while she is still dangerously stressed. On the other hand, I would have to point out that if any of us owned a frantically manic dog who was running around getting into everything, digging holes everywhere and chewing up all his toys we would diagnose him as suffering from separation anxiety and load him up with Clomicalm or Prozac.  Indeed, of course I am suffering from separation anxiety. The one person I cannot live without and the one job I truly loved are both gone with the wind.  My behaviour is no more normal than Roni's; it's just more productive.  On the other hand, Roni pointed out the other night that if I am any more "productive" I will be bankrupt within the year. Making big dreams happen can cost a lot of money.

The fact of the matter is that I could not have reacted to my daughter's death in any other way; my personality, my upbringing and society's expectations have all trained me, as a man, to react exactly this way. It is practically demanded of every man that he act and react rather than retreat and regroup as my wife is doing.  Truthfully, I watch my wife and I believe that her reaction is much more natural and probably, in the long run, far healthier.  She is taking some time right now to remember and heal, to emerge later healthier, more competent and possibly happier. I, on the other hand, am feeling progressively more stretched and stressed. I can see a great concrete wall approaching quickly and if I am not allowed to back off my frenetic pace, something will have to give. It may be my physical health or it may be my mental health, but something will break. In the mean time, I just continue juggling chainsaws (I saw a guy do that once; he had all his fingers still, but he did comment how stupid the trick was).

I am not really crying "sexism" here; I will leave that to the combative souls that insist on seeing everything in the world as black and white.  We can talk about "nature" versus "nurture" all we want, but in the end it is still the same result: women and men react to emotional assaults such as death differently. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different. On the other hand, both Roni and I kind of get a kick out of people continually asking me how poor Roni is doing and what I am doing to support her in her time of need. You see, we both know what goes on behind closed doors.

One of Calista's high school friends sent a short poem enclosed in a condolence card. I have yet to make it past the first stanza.  I start crying at about the fourth line and usually need to sit down with the folded paper held limply in my hand. I am not sure why this particular memorial hits me so hard, but it does.  The memorial is a religious piece addressed to God above. It tells of a bewildered young girl suddenly cut adrift in heaven, alone for the first time in her life.  I have no idea what it speaks of after that because that is where my reading stops every time. You see, it was always my job to have Calista's back; I was her mentor, her escort and her body-guard. Where ever she was, whatever she was doing, she always knew that she only needed to call my name and I would be there.  Sometimes it meant leaving work, sometimes it meant driving at breakneck speeds across town, but she always could count on me to come running.  This time, the one time it really counted I was not there and now, if there is a hereafter, she is truly and always alone.  In this I have finally failed.

Please, don't tell me that my grief is less because I am a man.

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