It’s crazy to think that 15 years ago today, the life of one of the most important people in my world, was suddenly over. Gone. Just like that.
I remember getting the call that he had almost died. I don’t remember the words, but I remember the fear. The tears. The anguish. And, that I was here. In Ottawa. Sitting in my little cubicle. Living my life, while my dad was fighting for his, and I didn’t even know it.
I look back on that time as though I was watching a movie in slow motion. I can hear the sob escape my lips, and see the desperation in my tears as deafening silence engulfs the office. Sixty people stop cold. No movement, no sound as the heavy hush falls. In my movie, I see my good friend rush over, grab my hands in hers, and my voice shakes as I tell her. Silence. Gripping fear. Real, desperate heartache. I hear my voice talking to the doctor, to see what shape he’s in now. And hear his deep soothing tone tell me “You’ll never regret coming, even if he was to get better”. And… it is at that split second… that very specific moment in time, that I feel the ‘crunch’ of my heart cracking; it’s jagged tear echoing in my ears. I will never experience life the same. He won’t be getting better. This the beginning of the end. A piece of my heart will always be broken. Forever.
In a blur, I take the next flight home to Edmonton, where my best friend is waiting to take me to the hospital. I remember sitting outside in her car, sobbing. Again. Trying to muddle up the courage to see him. The hollow “click clack” of my shoes resonate against the linoleum floor of the empty corridor as I sneak into his room after visiting hours. I remember holding his hand in mine, the raised purplish veins under his skin, and the familiarity of his kind, gentle, warm touch. I can close my eyes still today, and see the same hazel eyes looking back at me, and hear him tell me “I almost didn’t make it today”. How the words hurt to hear, but the relief of being with him, even for a few minutes, hours or days were of comfort. He must’ve made a joke, because I remember smiling a real smile, not a sad smile. He had that way about him. That charm. That gentle soul. The one I still miss.
As the days passed, and we were all around him, I felt the warmth of his love mixed with the fear of losing him. Of never being able to see him again. To ask his sage advice, to sit with him in silence and watch the squirrels on our deck, to lay beside him, match his breathing and hear the ticking of his mechanical mitral heart valve pumping the blood in and out, or to hear the unexplainable joy in the sound of his laughter and telling of witty jokes.
The day he died, my sister and I were trying to coax him into eating his lunch. My niece was just a baby (the apple of his eye), and my sister and I were both on the verge of bursting into tears, because it was just too hard. It was – too hard. It was hard for each of us, in the same ways, yet differently. But mostly… it would’ve been the hardest on him; in ways I can’t even begin to comprehend… or face. My mom and brother were talking to the doctor… my sister had taken my niece to the lounge… and I sat with him, and tried to convince him to eat something. I heard the rasping of his shallow breathing, saw the very distant far away look in his flecked hazel/brown eyes, and knew something was… wrong. I remember desperately trying to press the nurse’s call button – and choking out a plea for help – and then running down the hall as fast as I could to find a nurse. I could feel the pounding in my chest, the panic and the feeling of wanting to scream as loud as I could; but not being able to.
By the time I had found everyone, he was with my brother and had taken his last breath. And … I had missed my chance to say goodbye … to hold his hand and reassure him so he wouldn’t be afraid and to tell him how much I loved and admired him. In my heart, I knew that he knew all the love we each carried for him, but… my heart’s regret is that I didn’t just stop and hold him… that I ran to find help… and that for a fraction of a second he may have been alone.
On the way to his funeral, we were all sitting in the car, and I can’t remember which one of us said it, but it was his classic line. “I’m okay… you okay?”… And I remember looking at my mom, and I think that was the first time we were all able to smile. And it was because we felt him with us. That he would always be with us, in the big and small ways. And that in moments such as this, we were reassured that he would always be a part of us.
It took at least 6 months of deep hearted sobs every day, which tapered to every few days, then weekly, monthly and now, fifteen years later, in moments when I least expect it. The tears will trickle, and I can feel the ache of that hairline fracture that remains in my heart.
In our culture, we celebrate the lives of the people who have passed. At a young age, I was introduced to open casket funerals. I was five when my dad’s dad passed away, and I was scared to view his body at the funeral. My dad gently took me by the hand, and reassured me that everything was going to be okay. He led me past the pews, up the long red carpeted aisle to the coffin, where we stood in front of my grandpa’s body. My dad reached out and touched his hand, and took my hand to do the same. Nothing happened, and I remember distinctly that any fear I had , dissipated. We had annual gravesite visits at Provody; where baskets of food and Ukrainian bread lit with candles are laid on the graves, and they are blessed. The baskets are then given out, in memory of our loved ones, and the lives of those who passed are celebrated. As a young child, I knew that death was a part of life. And to this day, it brings me comfort knowing that each and every day my father’s life is celebrated in everything we do.
The crack in my heart is still there, but it is healed by his memory; filled with joy from the time I spend with my family, and blessed with the love I see in my son’s smile when he laughs and expresses himself in ways that remind me of my dad, even though he passed before Mouks was born. It makes me think that my dad lives in more than just my memory, that he really is a part of each of us.
My dad worked hard, laughed heartily, enjoyed life, and loved deeply. He lived his life with integrity, joy, humour, trust, kindness, generousity, optimism and enthusiasm. It is my wish that I can live my life with the same abandonment. That any obstacles I am faced with, I can rise above them, and see the hope for tomorrow, the beauty in the moment I am in, and appreciation for the life I have been given. And to know, that no matter what, we’ll all be okay.
“I’m okay…..you okay?” Johnny Huculak