I’m thinking about my stepfather a lot lately. It’s been hard not to since we moved out of the city and to a small town in Niagara. He worked for the canal. We live right by it now, drive past it regularly, and sometimes hear the ships from our home as they make their way up and down the escarpment from one Great Lake to another.
He died in 2004, the week the manuscript of my first book was due. He had not been in my life for many years and I did not grieve him. Not really. I grieved for myself: for everything that happened, for everything he did to me, for everything I should have had, and for the freedom that came when a lifetime of stored up fear was released from my body when he was released from his.
He could never hurt me again.
I am turning 49 this year. He was 49 when he died. We share no blood and I worked hard not to share anything else with him: his anger, his moods, his rancour, his cruelty, his willful stupidity, his lack of curiosity. Yet still these age correlations matter. I will outlive him. No matter what, I have already outlived him because I have really lived and he didn’t. He existed, and I suspect that for a long time he worked hard at obliterating himself so as to not exist at all.
The other day I happened upon a few songs by Gerry Rafferty whose seventies hits “Baker Street” and “Right Down the Line” were on regular rotation growing up. Memories rushed over me immediately: of being in the backseat of the car on a summer afternoon, my stepfather’s left arm dangling out the open window. And then lifting a cigarette to his mouth, always pausing to rest his thumb underneath his bearded chin before taking a long drag followed by a quick exhale. Again and again through a pack of Players Light Regular, every single day. Perhaps we were driving to the very beach that is my favourite now. Maybe we were dropping my mother off at Bingo, headed to one of his favourite donut shops, or to his buddy’s to score weed. Maybe we were going nowhere at all.
Listening to the songs, there’s a melancholy, a quiet vulnerability, and when I think about the music he listened to then, a surprising amount of it was like that. It seems contradictory, but we are all tender beings, even those who hide it behind violence. Probably even more-so. Violence took him away from life and the very things he must have craved deeply because they are things we all need: connection, love, forgiveness.
I think about one afternoon when I was five years-old and sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch, as he came walking in, sopping wet. He was a linesman then and had made a mistake tying a boat. The force of the rope threw him into the canal. The job was dangerous and he often did it drunk, high, or both. I think about the look on his face as he walked through the door: small and vulnerable like a terrified baby. He almost died. And then 26 years later he really did.
The other night I listened to those songs and cried. I cried for me and I even cried for him. I hated crying for someone who made my early life hell, yet I am grateful that I can. It’s okay to mourn the parent who hurt you. It’s okay to hate them, too.
We were all babies once. We all die. A lot can happen in between. Remembering him as a whole person is a reminder that we aren’t born monsters, that we are all capable of great love and terrible things, and how badly it could have gone. He stole a lot from me, but he didn’t take my humanity.
I still hate him fiercely, yet somehow, parts of me love him, too.