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Los Angeles, California
I am 47 and thriving in Southern California. One day at a time.
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Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Dear Daddy,

I don't know that I've ever written you a letter. Maybe one of those adorable notes that a child scribbles in a panic, like, "Dear Daddy. Please hide us or Mummy will spank us." Of course, I would have signed your birthday cards, as few as they were. I never wrote you one of those "Forgive your-father-forgive yourself" letters that was suggested in rehab. Besides, amends are the 9th step. Back in rehab, I was still stuck on the 1st step—trying to imagine a life without drugs and alcohol.

Did you ever go to an AA meeting? I've never told you this, but I still have your old address book. It's cover is an olive green leather, and when I open it, it wafts malty, leathery, like the smell that came off you all cozy in your bathrobe. Inside are your crazy scribbles—just like mine—footnotes, asterisks and sections emphatically underlined. It brings me comfort to know we had this in common. As well as, it turns out, something else. In the "A" section you capitalized the word "ALCOHOLISM" next to a phone number. It's only 7 numbers long, in the days before Toronto needed area codes. I have never called it. I wonder if you ever did.

And I never wrote anything I could read by your graveside. Not because I was wrapped up in any thickly woven blanket of resistance to it, but because you don't really have one. You were a doctor to the end, devoted to medical research and the fruits it might bear. Your ashes are buried in a mass grave dedicated to those who donated their bodies to The University of Toronto Medical Science. I think you might get a kick out of the fact that your daughter is the epitome of pure science fiction. Not only did your wife give me a kidney, but later, the son-in-law you never met did too.

So where I visit you is under a tree in High Park.

High Park. Where we used to play soccer. Where you took us tobogganing. Where you planted snap dragons and tomatoes in our allotment garden. Where a tree is now planted to remember you by.

When I am in Toronto, this is where I go to talk to you. A delicate sapling of a linden tree was planted for you, what 20 years ago ? 25? It is now a stunning tree. In the summer, it flourishes thick with bright emerald, kinda-almond-shaped leaves. But I can recognize it in the winter, too, when the branches stretch long and thin, elegantly barren. When it was planted, they also engraved a small brass plaque with your name, "Peter Ivanans. Life is Precious. 1940-1978." But then some kids stole it, so that was the end of that.

I still think about you. Often. Even though it's been 36 years since you died. I think about you when I hear The Beatles. When I see soccer games. When I smell beer. (Notice I didn't say, "When I drink beer." Those days are over for me, too.) But I especially think of you at Christmas time.

You know how they say there are 5 stages of grief—were those even around in 1978?—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Well, I'd like to take this opportunity to add a 6th one. The Christmas Factor. When you died on December 13th, 1978, to this 10 year-old girl, you kinda took Christmas with you. The day after you died I still went to school. It was the Christmas Carol concert at B.S.S. (Bishop Strachan School.) "Mum made you go to school?", you ask. Well, you know Mum, life goes on, and all that jazz.

I remember looking around at all the other girls singing in chapel. Why did they make little girls wear a white cotton veil? I don't think they do that anymore. Was it tradition? To remind us that there is something higher than us? I usually hated wearing that stupid veil, because it always messed up my hair—Mum always did such a fabulous job of color co-coordinating my ribbons with my uniform—but I was grateful for it that day. I used it like a private curtain, one I could hide behind, then peek out from periodically, and watch the other girls singing.

I didn't sing. I faked it. I knew if I tried to sing I would start crying. And I didn't believe I could ever stop. So I mouthed the words. It's what all the pop-stars do nowadays to prerecorded tracks. They get into a lot of trouble for that, but no one noticed me. Instead, I listened to the devotional harmonies soar far past the Technicolored-stained glass windows into rafters, filling the chapel with an unbearably mournful sound. My favorite music suddenly haunting, elegiac, bend-over-clutch-my-stomach painful.

The celebration of Jesus' birth became the soundtrack to your death.

Turns out Mum was right. Life did go on. I remember thinking, "Today I got up. I went to school. Daddy died yesterday. And everyone is just singing. How is that possible?" But it was.

3 years ago today, Daddy, I completed a 60-day stay in rehab. That's right, 33 years to the day after you died from alcoholism, your daughter was discharged into the world a barely sober woman. Is discharge the right word? Should it be graduate? I mean, it's not like I got a diploma or anything.

It used to drive me nuts, I mean, crazy, when those dripping-in-prayer-beads-tangled-up-in-lotus-pose types would nod their head at me knowingly, patronizingly and whisper inaudibly that "Everything happens for a reason." Fuuuck that.

But I can't deny the coincidence. December 13th. So, I call it a beacon, a warning light I can never let burn out. But who, what is guiding this light? And how do I keep it burning?

In the charred, smoking remains of your death, the answers are still hazy, unclear. Will I ever understand why I am getting a chance at a sober life, and you didn't? No. In the same way, that I can't comprehend African arms being sliced off for the blood diamond trade, dogs being tortured for fun, or conning the elderly. Yes, these are the things your little girl wonders about, tries to understand, every December 13th. No wonder I was never up for rockin' around the Christmas tree.

In the haunting echoes of Christmas hymns I hear Mankind's ache to understand, the passionate desperation to believe. But if all of Mankind can't understand God's plan, why would a little girl of 10? Or a woman of 43?

But on December 13th, 2011, I became willing to believe.

You missed so many things, Daddy. You missed my first kidney transplant. Mum gave me a kidney! It lasted 23 years. You missed my wedding day. The ceremony was in the B.S.S.chapel, the same chapel where I stood lip-synching; laid down prohibition on Christmas, less than 24 hours after you died. You would have loved Kevin. He sings, he photographs, he loves dogs. And, oh! He plays the bagpipes. He played "Amazing Grace" at our wedding. Huh. Maybe you were there after all, because the entire time I thought of you.

I have one good memory of us at Christmas time. It plays solid, cinematic, fresh as the day it "once-upon-a-time-d." It was the 24th of December, Christmas Eve, 1975. We had a tradition. You'd whisk us away from an overwhelmed Mum cooking up a Danish storm in the kitchen—the luscious, rich scent of roast pork, red cabbage and caramel potatoes wafting down our apartment hall—and you'd drive us around the neighborhood. We'd oooh and ahhh at all the Christmas lights—glittering rainbow-ed teardrops glinting against icy roofs—comparing, laughing over who liked what arrangement best. Look, a snowman! There's a Santa's Hat! Had we already done that? You and I were standing outside on the little balcony off your master bedroom in our downtown apartment. Strung along the main balcony was our steadfast strand of alternating red and green lights, the one we would point to, how we could recognize home, when we turned the corner off Bloor St, and drove up High Park Blvd. If I stood on tiptoe, I could see the elegant bare arms of the park's frosted trees. Together we huddled against the cold. It was a awesome night, the kind of winter night Canadians find beautiful. I leaned into your slight frame, gazing up into your toothy grin and felt safe. We were looking for Santa. For Rudolph and the other reindeer. "Is that him?" I cried, pointing to the flickering red light of a passing airplane. "No." you explained. "Rudolph's nose shines steady. It does not blink when he's working." And then you cried out, that funny, joyous shout of yours. "There he is! There's Santa!" And I saw it. There it was. I saw the light. A steady stream of red, unblinking, moving silently through the dark winter sky. "Where is he going?" I cried. "Why isn't he coming here?" "He's coming", you assured me. "he's coming. He's just going east to Montreal first."

And I believed. I believed.

You made it so easy to believe. And when you died, I guess, I just couldn't anymore. Believe in love, or possibility. Or the magic of Christmas.

I lied. I have one other Christmas memory. I remember that "Good King Wenceslas" was your favorite hymn. I tell Kevin this every year when we light the real, "Danish" candles on our Christmas tree. I picture the four of us—Mummy, N., you and me—"waltzing" around the resplendent tree, softly aglow in candlelight and the tacky shimmer of tinsel garlands. Sometimes holding hands, sometimes holding our carol books, the candles flickering in the merciful breeze of our dance. I remind my husband of this every year, and he never says, "I know, sweetheart. I know." He just nods quietly and we sing.

And singing is no longer painful.

"Sire the night is darker now

And the wind grows stronger.

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer..."

You would have liked him, Daddy. No. You would've loved him.

I believe in him. He made me believe in love. And possibility. And the magic of Christmas.

And now, I am willing to believe in Him.

So for Them, I will try to love Christmas again.

Forever and Ever,
Your daughter,


1 comment:

  1. Just brilliant as always Henriette. I just love your writings but this brought a few tears to my eyes . . but also some smiles. Don't stop believing. x lesley