Writing – My Wailing Wall
In the final months of my father’s life, one of my brothers looked at me, my shoulders hunched over my laptop, and asked, “Do you have to write so much?” His question took me aback, and, after thinking for a second, I looked up and responded with, “Yes, I have to write; writing is my way.” I added, “Writing is the way I try to make sense of all of this, to process, to release, to heal and to know that others are bearing witness to my experience, to know that I am not alone.” He smiled, that knowing smile of his, and said, “That’s what I thought.”
Two weeks before his 80th birthday, my dad was called to the specialist’s office. Surrounded by family members, my father learned of the reason he had become jaundiced—terminal pancreatic cancer, and, considering his advanced Parkinson’s Disease, he was given a prognosis of six months, plus or minus three. When Dad heard his prognosis, he laughed out loud and told the doctor that, seeing as he was such a procrastinator, he’d probably live a lot longer than that. He lived for three and a half more months.
On my dad’s 80th birthday, July 26, after two days of diagnostic procedures at Vancouver General Hospital, we travelled the approximately 1,900 kilometres back to the Yukon. After five hours of flying, Air North touched down in Dawson and Dad arrived home. That was all he wanted – to be home — and to die at home. He died in his living room on October 29, his final wish granted.
At the end of every long, challenging and very full day of providing end-of-life care for my Dad, I wrote, connecting with family and friends via e-mail. As I wrote, I cried. I didn’t just cry. I wept. I wailed. My laptop became my wailing wall. I can still see the salty tear-stains on my keyboard. I can’t erase them. Not just yet.
I shared most of my story in the form of e-mails. I sent messages—and received them from—near and far. Through writing, I reconnected with family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to for many years—friends of mine, friends of my parents, people I had met, people I had never met, people from my childhood. My past, present, and future were meeting at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers and at the terminus of my father’s life.
In my messages, I intimately described my experiences and provided updates on my father’s health. People I’ve known (or that my parents have known) bore witness to my process and to my pain. Over and over again I received messages from family and friends that my willingness to share was a gift to others and that my messages touched people’s hearts. Through writing I felt hopeful, and I never felt alone. My heart was cocooned by love.
Above all, I think that I wrote because it opened my heart. Opened it to the pain as well as to the rich, meaningful, poignant experience. My heart was an open book, and I kept it open. Just when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, something would happen: a phone call, a visit from a friend or a family member, or a card in the mail; and my heart would open even more. Sharing my words gave me the power to be present to the full and enriching experience of accompanying my dad to his death.
Most people would describe my dad as a man who loved to talk – a storyteller. When Dad first came to the north in the mid 1950s, Inuvialuit friends gave him the name ‘Okalisuk’ – talkative one. Not to be outdone, a dear First Nations friend, said that Dad also needed a Gwich’in name so she christened him, ‘Idiginjii’ – talks lots.
I think, no I know, that my Dad would be pleased to hear that the apple didn’t fall far from the storytelling tree. For the gift of stories, and of their telling, I will be forever grateful to my dad.
“People sharing stories is almost like a little cocoon.
It wraps you in love, protects you from the pain.”