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Memoir: when my deadbeat dad had a stroke, I finally learned how to forgive him

Memoir: UnforgivenIn the spring of 2006, I sat in a padded metal chair and watched my 63-year-old father wake up from a Demerol sleep. He was lying in a bed in the intensive care unit at Toronto Western, recovering from a stroke that, quite literally, had knocked him off his feet. There was damage to his spinal cord; now, his doctors were saying, he was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

“I dreamed I could walk,” my dad said. There were several people in the room, including two nurses and my grandmother, but his blue eyes snapped right on mine. “I can’t walk, can I?”

His voice was filled with more genuine sorrow and desperation than I had ever heard, but I felt no sympathy. Good, I thought. Now you know what it feels like to have a part of you ripped away.

My bitterness surprised me. In the five years before my dad’s stroke, I had seen him only a handful of times, and the story of our estrangement was not characterized by intense emotion. I grew up amid widespread parental divorce, and my memory of my dad leaving—standing in the driveway with his stuff in plastic bags, my mom locking the door behind him—had been softened by the ubiquity of deadbeat dads on TV. Conveniently, my father and the pop culture stereotype were a perfect match: an alcoholic who was financially unsupportive and only occasionally showed up for our bimonthly visits. Still, he had an undeniable charisma—Irish-y, warm, verbose—that made him as easy to love and miss as he was to resent and despise. Growing up, I blamed him for pretty much every routine failure. When my mom snapped at me at the end of a two-job workday, when I got my first unpayable student loan bill, when I broke up with my charming, irresponsible boyfriend, I had a neat, Dad-shaped hole into which I could shove my anger and disappointment.

Now, he was the helpless one; now I could abandon him. But for reasons I couldn’t understand, I didn’t. Weeks later, there I was, standing at a vending machine in the hospital hallway, hearing my father call my name from his bed down the hall. Months later, there I was, watching him learn how to pull himself from his bed to his new wheelchair via a long, curved-edge board. In his room at the rehab centre where he would spend almost half a year, his bedside table was a jumble of things I had brought him: a collection of David Sedaris stories, Anthology of American Folk Music on CD, an album of photos of me in my apartment so he could see where I lived. Since I didn’t really know his tastes, I just guessed what he might like, but he loved everything instantly. He propped up the album so he could stare at a picture of me and my cat. He’d read to me from the Sedaris book, his smoker’s voice cracking into laughter.

“Tell me more,” he’d say sometimes, pointing outside the margins of a photo. “Is the kitchen over here, to the left? Do you have a gas stove, or electric? What do you make for dinner?”

My dad’s curiosity about me was surprising—he hadn’t seemed interested in me since he’d left. Sometimes, walking down the corridor of the rehab centre, I’d feel like such a rube I’d match my footsteps to different rationales: It’s-just-pity, or Ob-li-gation. Once he was stable, I thought, I’d be able to walk away. Other times, I pictured a looping sequence in which I opened the door to his room only to find an empty bed, my dad gone again. When I’d find him there, propped up against pillows, the relief was opiate-strong.

Sometimes we’d read the paper, scratchy blues playing in the background. “What do you think of this?” I’d ask my dad about some headline, more interested in his response than the story itself. I felt enraged at times, sad, guilty—but underneath this ambivalence, I realized, I was curious, too.

I talked to my father at least three times a week, for hours at a time, first in the rehab centre, and later in the bright, accessible apartment he found downtown. Adjusting to life in a wheelchair, he told me, was an ongoing struggle; beneath the drinker’s bonhomie, my father was deeply proud. “I literally can’t sit on a bar stool now,” he said during one of these talks. He told me about how calm he felt now that he wasn’t drinking—“like a 16-year-old kid.”

And many, many times he said: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I don’t know how I could have abandoned you, I don’t know what I was thinking, nothing in the world can make it up to you, and living with that is just the hardest damn thing.”

In 2011, my father unexpectedly inherited some money from the sale of his mother’s house. He
handed a chunk of it over to me, in a spirit not of absolution but of apology. I felt grateful, then mad at myself for feeling grateful. But mostly, I felt exhausted, and it was in this bone-tired space that I started to feel okay. It’s easy to hate a cartoon villain, much harder to hate a three-dimensional person—someone who is left-handed, who likes fruit but not fruit pie, and whose favourite George Carlin routine is “A Place for My Stuff.” The more details I collected about my dad, the less he seemed a match for that cut-out who’d stood in the driveway with his things in plastic bags.

Six years later, I don’t imagine that scene anymore—the one where I show up to meet my father at the hospital and he’s gone. I talk to him almost every day, and we see each other regularly. I know that whenever we meet, he’ll be there in his blue windbreaker, smiling from his wheelchair, holding some tiny present for me: a mouse he has carved out of driftwood, a box of daffodil bulbs for my garden. I don’t remember deciding to forgive him. Forgiveness was more the by-product of our conversations. It was another accident, so stunning it almost knocks me off my feet.

Alexandra Kimball is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

Email submissions to memoir@torontolife.com