Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Almost Six Months: Nasty, Big, Pointy Teeth

And so it began; a repeated hug that lasted a lifetime
Was I ever that young?

"For death awaits you all, With nasty, big, pointy teeth."

The quote above is a test; there will be many readers who get it and smile or laugh, and there will be the rest of the world. Calista would have laughed.

I had a long discussion with my old boss, Jim, last week. In the course of the telephone call he brought up something that has been bothering me since the night after she died. Dreaming.

Everyone asks me if I have been dreaming.  My brother, the grief counsellor, my friends. I am not sure why; it probably means something about my mental state; I really wouldn't know. I have never stopped dreaming; all my dreams are variations of the same theme.  In my dreams, I always have something very important I have to do or some place I have to be and yet at every turn of the screw I am obstructed by everyone and everything I can imagine.  If I am at the door of the examination theatre for the most important test of my life, I turn for a moment and the next thing I know I am across the country and performing a difficult surgery or stranded without a car. Each time I succeed in getting free of the complication, I find myself even farther from my important appointment and with hardly any time left.  I am like the proverbial white rabbit in Calista's copy of "Alice in Wonderland" that sits above her bed; always short on time and running to catch up.  I could do without this dream, but I know it will always be with me in the dark of the night.  You don't always get what you want and rarely do you get what you need.

What I need is to dream about my daughter. Even just  a few moments each night of her smiling face and her ready humour would make  Roni and myself just so much less lonely.

Jim asked me if I dreamt about Calista at all and I had to admit that, with the exception of one brief interlude in my standard nightmare months ago where she silently distracted me from my transcontinental rush to a long overdue university exam, I have not enjoyed the company of her welcome shade.

Jim lost his brother to heart disease several years back. He had a close relationship with his brother; they spoke every day and spent many evenings and weekends trading barbs the way brothers do. It was a real blow to Jim when his brother suddenly died late one evening. Death, as it always does, left so much unfinished business. Jim said to me that it would have been so much easier to take if he could have had just a few dreams about his brother to close those open doors between them.

It is so strange that those that are left behind do not get some small respite from grief by dreaming about their lost souls. It seems to  me that it would be an excellent survival mechanism for the grieving family to at least dream. It might lift some of the overwhelming depression that has overtaken both Roni and I. Of course, the one problem with that idea is that one of us (Roni) would choose to sleep and enjoy her virtual world rather than live in the real world.

I wanted to talk about my own relationship with Calista for this entry in my journal. I have no doubt that it will be difficult and perhaps a little contradictory. How does one remain objective when discussing yourself and your relationship with the great love of your life? It would perhaps be easier if Roni wrote this "chapter", but she is adamant that the journal is my business and with the exception of proof reading and the odd verbal contribution (or retraction, as the case may be) she is keeping her distance.

I was always willing to carry her; she wasn't heavy, she was
my daughter.

While Calista and Roni were like siblings most of the time, friends and rivals simultaneously, Calista and I were practically the same personality separated by thirty years. We laughed at the same things, enjoyed the same foods and had the same self-depreciating attitude mixed with the flashes of hopeless arrogance. Irony and sarcasm dripped from our mouths with every word we said; I know it became a little old for most people. Of course now she is gone and I am not quite the man I was; I am not sure the world needs any more of my peculiar mixture of combined arrogance and ignorance.

I cannot remember a time that I was not thinking about how I wanted to mold Calista into a better person than I ever was.  Its not false modesty when I say that I don't consider myself an overly nice, good or likable man.  I am often high handed, aloof, arrogant and frequently lacking in empathy. I make knee-jerk decisions and flippant remarks, often for purely theatrical effect, and then regret those actions horribly when I realise what I have said or done. I am not brave in the least. Sure, I talk a good game, but when push comes to shove I leave the adventures and action-hero stuff to more capable people. I am one of those people the Dalai Lama describes when he talks about constantly living for the future and therefor dying, having never lived at all. That pretty well encapsulates me: working constantly toward that sunny day when my real life will start, knowing deep down, that day has already passed me by.  I wanted more for my girl; I wanted her to understand from the very start that she could be anything she wanted to be, go anywhere she dreamt of going, and define success in any way she chose.  I wanted her to create her own destiny rather than try to meet either Roni's or my expectations. Calista was supposed to be my redemption for a life wasted on worry, work, and self-doubt.
About a minute after her first steps. Note my hand
ready to catch her if she fell. I only missed catching her
just the once. Unfortunately that once was last May.

From the start Roni and I divided the parenting duties almost straight down the middle.  If I was home from work and a diaper needed changing there was no need to call for Roni because she was not going to change it for me. We used to have a rule that if you smelled the diaper you had to change the diaper (There was a rash of transient stuffy noses in our house until we got used to the smell of baby poop). Feeding time was fun for everyone (though those wet burps were never really appreciated) and bathing was always a pleasure since Calista enjoyed her baths so much. The one thing Roni just could not do was the regular trips to the public health nurse; Calista hated those trips and the stress of her daughter crying in terror used to make Roni a little light headed.  I ended up having to play the Judas after the very first trip to the nurse in downtown Whitehorse and it took me a couple of runs at it before I found the solution to the stress issue.
Yeah, I was posing for the camera, but she was definitely not.
She was never happier than when she was sleeping on either
Roni or me back in those days.

Our house and veterinary clinic in Whitehorse was downtown on Cook street, just off fourth avenue, hidden behind what was known then as "The Twin Cinemas". The parking lot for the small theatre backed up on our fence line.  Roni could entertain herself as she did the clinic books in the picture windows of her business office by watching the ubiquitous Yukon ravens gorge themselves on day-old popcorn torn from the metal dumpsters behind the big, grey movie house. Our home was about six or eight blocks from the public health office down on Main; too short to drive but a really brisk walk in January at minus 30 Celsius. After our first trip to the nurse I realised that the whole experience of warming up our big Toyota SUV for fifteen minutes, strapping Calista into the car seat and then carting her and the seat out to the truck to spend another few minutes fiddling with the seat belts to get the seat safely secured, all the while listening to the piercing wails of my very angry daughter was way too much work for a three minute drive and a five minute nurse's appointment.There had to be a better solution.

 A little older but once again snoozing
on top of dad. Lucky I was packing tons
of extra weight in those days for comfortable
One of the baby-gifts we really appreciated was a "back-pack" baby seat.  When Calista was about one she fit the seat perfectly and it quickly became her favourite mode of transportation if daddy was in charge. Roni was a bit too small to wear the back-pack comfortably, but it fit me perfectly and it gave Calista a birds-eye view of the entire world.  I liked the pack most of the time, though it was not all that much fun when Calista let go with a wet burp; baby formula is not a great hair conditioner.  The pack really became a life saver when public-health appointments were due. Calista never balked at getting put in the pack (at least until she could walk) and she really enjoyed all the attention she received from the residents of Whitehorse we met on our tours of downtown. Even her vaccination appointments went fairly smooth with the back-pack: she would be miserable and crying after the needle, staring angrily at that traitorous father who had delivered her up to the nurse, and yet by half-way home she would have forgiven daddy and would be laughing happily as she greeted every passer-by. It helped that we often would meet Gila, her favourite nanny ever, as Gila did her rounds of all the businesses in Whitehorse she did the books for. Gila could always coax a smile out of the little princess.

In the fall of Calista's second year, Roni was suffering from a overwhelming sense of ennui. In retrospect I realise that it was a combination of post-partum depression and the winter darkness of the Yukon. Either way, Roni needed to escape our northern existence for a while and find "Roni" again. She researched a course on make-up artistry for film and modelling offered by Joe Blasco out of Los Angeles.  Before coming to me she did a couple of spread sheets of income and expenses to show how we could afford such an extravagance.  The trip hinged heavily on the fact that my sister Lynn lived on the edge of Hollywood and could provide living accommodations.  Roni would have to rent a car and get herself to the studio where Joe Blasco's course was held, something that scared the hell out of me since Roni is terribly directionally challenged (she can easily get lost anywhere).  She would also have to find several thousand dollars for tuition, supplies and air-fare. Then there was the expense of the nanny, since I could hardly be expected to take Calista to work with me all day  and get anything worthwhile done.  Despite the big hole the venture was sure to drill in our bank account I supported the idea completely; it was not hard to see how unhappy Roni was in Whitehorse and that meant that it was just a matter of time before I was unhappy.

I'm not sure who needed the nanny. It seems to me I had
at least one of the main food groups under control.
The first hurdle we had to leap was finding a nanny to care for Calista during the five weeks Roni would be away in LA. This was no mean feat really: Roni had some very specific requirements for any young woman who would be living in our house with her husband and child while she was thousands of miles away in southern California.  I was all for just hiring Gila, but that idea was shut down by Roni immediately; there was no way a young, attractive blond who I genuinely liked was going to be spending quality time with Roni's family without her there to supervise. In the end it didn't matter since Gila was going to be out of the country for the duration anyway. I am sure the nanny that Roni finally hired had many excellent references and abilities, but rest assured she was never going to be hired as a swim-suit model or a beauty queen.

The nanny was nice enough, but not really nanny material. Changing a diaper seemed to be a challenge to her and I had to correct her more than a few times to the effect that the weight rating on the diaper box was all about the size of the baby, not the capacity of the diaper. I finally lost my temper one night and, at my most cynical,  I pointed out that I predictably arrived home from the clinic at 6:15 pm, so if she changed her last diaper at 6 pm I would never even know if she was properly caring for my daughter or not.  I meant the comment to be tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, but to this day I think the girl took me seriously.  I complained nightly to Roni about her and she was not hired back once Roni returned. On the other hand I did not get to fire her and replace her with Gila.

I had the little karate gi made as a joke: it turned out to be an $80
joke. At least the seamstress was laughing. Calista wore it once.
The five weeks Roni lived in LA was pure gold for me. Calista travelled everywhere with me: to the gym, the grocery store, the clinic for after-hour emergency cases and all points in-between.  She was the darling of the gym, but some of the comments I got were backhanded compliments really. The women were all shocked that Bryce's daughter was such an angel. I was never sure how to take that: was it kudos for my girl or a shot at me? Our one and only trip to the karate dojo was a complete bust; the moment punches started flying at daddy, tears started flowing and our "kiais" were drowned out by a baby screaming bloody murder. My sensei thought it was hilarious, but I was asked not to bring her back.  I took a hiatus from the dojo for that five weeks. Most nights, after an hour or so of television (European night motorcycling races were popular with her for some wierd reason), I would put her to bed by reading her favourite book, sometimes falling asleep long before she did. Once I fell asleep at her bedside only to awaken several hours later with Calista standing over me, having crawled out of her crib all on her own.  It freaked me out a bit since I had no idea how long she had been trundling around the house on her own.

I caught her walking this dog out of the clinic; lucky she
couldn't unlock the door herself or she would have been gone.
Trips to the clinic were always popular with Calista.  If it was late at night and I was alone with my girl, I would just put the client in charge of watching Calista while I examined their pet. Calista needed constant watching whenever she was over in the clinic; she had a tendency to either crawl into the cages with the animals or let the animals loose so she could "take them for a walk". Once she managed to get a leash on a very friendly Golden Retriever, navigated herself and the dog up the steep stairs from the kennel room and was half-way to the front door (locked thank goodness) before I caught up with her. She was laughing her head off since she was basically skiing behind the rambunctious young dog while wearing fleece pyjamas and leather mocassins.  Sometimes it was tempting just to lock her into one of the kennels so I could get some productive work done (I never did, but it was tempting).

Her Nissan 200 SX in Haines Alaska. After forty minutes of
fooling around, I realized I was parked under a sign that said
"Beware of Grizzly bears"
When Roni returned home to Whitehorse after five weeks in LA she was much a much happier woman. She never did much with the make-up training beyond creating prize-winning Halloween costumes, but at least she had the satisfaction of knowing she could have made it in Hollywood if she had chosen to go that route (she had managed to scavenge quite a bit of work on a couple of sets just in the few weeks she had been south). The final bill for the trip was a bit more than anticipated and I ended up having to sell my Nissan 200 SX sports car (a foolish expenditure made by me two years previously) to cover all the bills. I never missed the red rocket, but Calista was heartbroken; she considered the sleek little car hers.  I had to explain to a tearful Calista several times that her "Ka" was gone and it was not coming back.

I highly recommend all husbands giving their wife a holiday from parenting periodically; you will never regret that time alone with your kids.  That five weeks gave me a comfort level with my daughter that stayed between us her entire life.

Kelvin Orr get's his glasses adjusted. More like ripped off
his face. Even as his Parkinson's Disease took over he
knew she was one of his.
Calista and I shared many unconscious personality quirks that drove Roni crazy over the years. Roni always threatened to get us  dinner plates with dividers because both of us hate to have our foods mixed on our plates. We always eat one entire dish before tasting another. Meat is usually eaten first, and vegetables last.   Actually, Calista usually skipped anything green just on general principle (it might be healthy, you know). Chocolate will always be devoured even when we cannot eat one more bite. Calista and I had the same taste in books and would share frequently. Her last offering to me was "The Great Gatsby"; I was half-way through it the day she died. It's ironic that the book was about a young man killed in his prime.  Both of us tended to read the last few pages of our books first, just to see if they had a happy ending.  Kelvin Orr, Calista's grandfather, always did that. He passed it on to me and I guess I passed it on to her. We had the same sense of humour: anything by Monty Python was hilarious to us, much to the dismay of Roni. Both of us agreed that there are two basic types of people in this world: those that get Monty Python, and the rest of the world. Calista had entire monologues from "The Holy Grail" memorised and could always be counted on to say, "Nasty, big pointy teeth" every time she saw a Jack-rabbit in our back yard. She used that for a few people she knew too; there was always just a little sarcasm. She gets that from me.

Trying to learn how to skip stones at the lakeside
acreage in Vernon. We were a pair.

Regina, finally. It was before swimming
and dad was still on the chubby side, so he remained
an excellent mattress.
I threw myself into everything Calista was involved in, usually getting so involved that the line between her interests and my interests became blurred. Her competitive swimming was a good example where I probably overstepped my boundaries by a long shot.  I was constantly acting the arm-chair athlete from the side-lines throughout Calista's swimming years. Granted, I had been a decent competitive swimmer in my day and I did throw myself back into training during those years, but I should have kept my mouth shut. By the time Calista quit swimming the enmity between me and her coach was palpable. I am lucky the man did not just throw my ungrateful butt out the door every time I turned up at the pool. At one point, as Calista's interest in swimming faded, I was so sure I could rejuvenate her "career" that I hired a stroke coach for some remedial stroke correction. Her regular coach was furious (rightfully so) and told me the problem was in her mind, not in her body. He was, of course, correct; at that time she was being bullied into quiting swimming by the ex-boyfriend.  On the other hand,  she always had the most beautiful front crawl after the stroke coach was finished with her. Beautiful and gracefully slow; which is not very productive for competitive swimming. (BTW: Calista saved my life; until I got back into swimming I was thirty or forty pounds overweight and headed for type 2 diabetes before I turned fifty. Spending time with your kid need not be "wasted" time)
Years later, somewhere in Idaho. It was really
hot that week and the Yukon kid was melting. Hot
weather was not her thing ever.

I didn't feel obliged to restrict myself to her sports.  I knew better than to interfere at school, but I was always looking for ways to gently nudge Calista towards carreers I thought she would find exciting or challenging. When she was about 12, the "CSI" television franchise was all the rage and it was her favourite show (the original from Vegas, not the johnny-come-lately pretenders from elsewhere); the more graphic the episode was, the more she laughed.  Calista knew it was not comedy but that didn't make any difference. I thought she might find that sort of police work right up her alley, so I pulled a few strings with a good friend over at RCMP-Depo,  managing to score a full escorted tour of the national forensics lab in Regina.  I actually pulled her out of school to swing it (without telling Roni), and we spent a morning at the lab. I was bubbling with excitement and Calista was rolling her eyes. It seems science and technology, especially DNA, is not nearly as exciting in real life as it is in Hollywood. When she saw that the real forensics laboratory looks pretty much like a well-organized sterile operating theatre rather than a fancy movie set, CSI: the job, was not exciting in the least. She still loved the show, but made it clear that she would skip the career.  A person would think I would learn from my first educational effort, trying to teach her about time and tides in Vancouver when she was seven; the stuff dad's find exciting are rarely the same things daughter's find exciting. (BTW: I don't really enjoy CSI style shows anymore. The team on the television shows always figures out the cause of death, and they arrest the purpetrator in one eight hour shift, even when faced with little more than bone fragments. Meanwhile, it has been nearly six months without answers from our coroner and they had a nearly-living body presented to them, still warm straight from the ambulance. Reality bites)

Once Calista started boxing I was back in her corner, haunting her at the boxing club, taking in the odd calisthenics work-out with her and generally being a pest for all her coaches. With my 25 years of karate training, I once again thought I knew something about the sport and sometimes let my mouth move before my brain caught up.  Luckily by that time Calista was old enough to tell her dad to back down and mind his own business.  I managed to not alienate any of her boxing least not permanently. Funny thing though; Calista never showed any interest in learning karate and I never had any interest in teaching her karate.  We just instinctively knew that we would butt heads if I tried to teach her karate and it was enough that we could trade pointers on how "our style" of fighting did things. Calista actually taught me lots of things about how to really punch; its nice to know your kid taught you something intentionally.

Art appreciation hour. She dragged that seat all the way
out of the kitchen, across the carpet and into position.  I found
her there when I got home from work for weeks.
It was in our mutual love of art that Calista and I really moved as one. Both of us would look for art shows either at the local gallery in Regina or at the larger gallery in Vancouver while we were on vacation.  She was every bit as gung-ho as I was, sometimes even more so. It was Calista who dragged me out to the Andy Warhol retrospective. I don't regret going because it was a shared experience with Calista, but Warhol will never be a favourite artist of mine.  Jack Cowin always told us that one reason Calista was so happy was because Roni and I just accepted and embraced the reality that she was an artist rather than trying to force her into some more main stream profession. Typical of me, as Calista became more involved in art, I became more involved in what she was doing.  I have an entire library of expensive art books filling nearly half of a large book shelf in my basement and I went so far as to audit a university level course on European art history. This from a man who can barely draw a happy face without a "pentimento" (alteration). I really tried not to overstep my boundaries with her art, but there were times that I crossed the line.

Calista found her first year at university overwhelming. She had never really had that volume of work thrown at her before with so little guidance. Calista was used to having lots of personal direction in her small high school classes and suddenly becoming just another number in a large university class nearly disarmed her.  Her art projects were assigned to her weekly and she was just not prepared for the rapid fire short deadlines.  There was at least two instances where dear old dad stepped in, and perhaps helped on art projects more than was really kosher. On two projects the majority of the work was my sweat labour, though they were both completely her vision. I know I would never have dreamt of making a four foot high spray can replica out of corrugated cardboard, or a five-sided Wicca star out of smaller pine Christian crosses cut to fit. The second project was all about iconoclasm, so I guess she fit the bill.  Calista realised after the project was completed that her dad was the world's worst carpenter. I'm not sure we got very good marks on either project.

I gave Calista her first camera (and, actually, several of the subsequent cameras). While we would frequently discuss ideas, she never really asked for my help, or guidance on any of her photography work. She would always happily show off her photographs and talk about what she was trying next, but it was always just out of sharing rather than looking for guidance. I look at many of her early photographs, even from before the high-school introductory classes and I realise she naturally had a better eye for composition than I ever can hope to have. Perhaps all those hours touring art galleries paid forward into her photography so she produced quality composition most of the time. Near the end of her life, most of the time she would show us her work only because Roni and I took such pleasure in seeing what she was producing. She had gone so far beyond our expectations that she no longer needed our praise and acceptance to feel validated; she could just share her work with us like a parent gives a child a treasured Christmas present. Every one of her trips home she brought new gifts for Roni and I.

I won't bore you with a bunch of little cute stories about her and I as she grew up. There are too few of them; I spent too much time at work or chasing my own tail down at the karate dojo. If I had been half the father I pretend to be I would have realized I was no Dr. Dolittle or Chuck Norris and come home to my wife and daughter earlier and more often. On the other hand, I will pass on the essence of the conversation Roni and I had just the other evening. We critically analyzed our Calista and realized she had become more than we ever dreamed she could be.

While Calista's dry wit and sarcasm was practically legendary among her close friends, just a quick survey of her band of friends will tell you something far more important about her: her world was absolutely inclusive. Calista's circle of friends was assembled from a cross section of the grades and social cliques at her high school. While class mates kept to their own grade levels or even tried to run with the college crowd, Calista was comfortable hanging with kids from any of the grades. Certainly her involvement with the drama club  and improv theatre contributed to her wide range of comrades, but she took it so much farther by making sure to invite all of them to her house parties and birthday parties (tiara day henceforth).  This was a pattern we saw repeated throughout her life. In grade school when the Vietnamese child with practically no English skills was having trouble integrating into her class, she took the new kid under her wing and tried to translate for her (she had not one word of Vietnamese, so I'm not sure how successful that might have been).  When one of the swimmers from the other local swim club was shunned because he "came out" as gay, she made a point of sitting down and socializing with him, making sure he knew he was welcome to join her own little club.  She always saw people for what they really were rather than where they stood in the social pecking order. Calista was pretty much blind to colour, sexual orientation or social class. She didn't even know there might be a "wrong side of the tracks" (of course that might be because her driving skills were so poor she was just happy to stay on the road without worrying about where the tracks might be).  Roni and I loved that about her, but we would be fooling ourselves if we believed we contributed much to that side of her.

Calista was brave in the all the important ways. She stood up for what she believed was right, even when it got her in trouble. She was no mouse; she once stood up to the entire high school foot-ball team when they tried to carry away her beloved car Jude. I think she actually scared half the team that day, but I don't know about the other half because they were too busy running away. She also knew when to just stay quiet and show her bravery by stoic tolerance.

The skim-boarding was all her idea. I had spent so many
years talking about her Uncle Ivor and how good he was
at skimming that she just had to try it. Surfing was on her
list too; she just missed the trip to Tofino by 2 weeks.
Calista embraced change and adventure. My little girl has saw far more of the world in her short life than I have in my much longer and boring life. She would have seen much more if she had been given her fair chance; she had plans to return to Europe and take the Greek Islands by storm. She would have gone alone if need be, but there was always the plan that she and I were going to revisit Rome and see it the right way; slow enough to savor every moment like a well aged wine.

 Heck, I even can contrast her amazing little apartment she made into a stylish home to my first apartment at Simon Fraser University filled with severely distressed third hand furniture, decades of filth caked on the wall and an overwhelming infestation of silver fish and pharoah ants.  She lived like a princess on vacation while I survived like an impoverished convict on day parole.  She loved moving out on her own at just nineteen while at the same age I lived like a kid at summer camp holding his breath waiting for mommy to come and take him home. The kind of independence and self-reliance Calista had was what practically guaranteed she was going to succeed (she would have figured out cooking, cleaning and laundry eventually I'm sure).

Calista was pro-active and self-motivated. So many of us talk all about how things should be or could be done; Calista had the guts and the ambition to go ahead and get started. She was willing to be wrong, make a mistake or fail.  When we finally managed to shut down all her bank accounts, my Calista had squirrelled away close to twelve thousand dollars. I am sure she was building a war-fund so she could start her own photography business. That money likely represented nearly a year of living expenses while she worked part-time and developed her carreer. At the time of her death she already had two paying photography projects on the go and from that point there would have been more.

Roni and I both consider Calista our masterpiece. Calista was everything we ever dreamed for her and had the potential to be so much more. To say that we were proud of our daughter is an understatement. We were in awe of what she had become. Neither of us believe we can really take credit for the final person she became. The ladies at the gym in Whitehorse had it just about right; it really is hard to believe that a loudmouth redneck troll like me could produce something as beautiful and joy-filled as Calista. On the other hand, there are several things that I know Roni and I did right. We never forced her to meet our expectations but always looked for ways to help her meet her own . We always tried to figure out what endeavours made her happy and then did everything we could to help her succeed at those activities. Finally, we always made sure she knew we were proud of her. We didn't infer it, hint it or assume she knew; we outright told her when we sincerely thought she had done great.

Today is November 14th. It would have been Calista's 21st birthday.....Happy Birthday Honey. Wear your Tiara and laugh...wherever you are.

Her Father's Dance at Graduation. It was
our first...and last dance together.

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