See you on the other side, Pops

I’ve always wanted to put down on paper what it was like to lose my father and what lessons I learnt after the fact. Maybe one day it’ll make somebody else’s life better.

I sit here writing this as I look out over the Gulf of Mexico. The ocean and the beach a mere “pitching wedge away” as my old man would say. Gord loved the beach. He loved the ocean, no matter the temperature. He loved how it would bring the family together for hours on the beach. You learn to play games with one another, throw the pigskin, paddle ball, boogie boarding, football, “pitch and catch” with the baseball (“don’t forget your gloves kids!”), and of course, swimming. From the cold shores of Maine where you learnt to just dive in and wait to get numb, to the warm beaches of the Gulf, the ocean always held some type of serenity for him. 

My father was diagnosed with ALS on February 8th 2011. This was before the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, a time where I had absolutely zero idea about motor neuron diseases. ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a diseases which, in short, causes muscles degeneration throughout your body. In case you haven’t noticed, you use your muscles for everything…smiling, walking, shaking hands, moving your neck, writing, eating…breathing, all of these mundane tasks will eventually end up impossible to complete. It’s a slow process too; you get to literally watch your loved ones go from 100% to 99, 98, 97, with every passing day. It’s the worst case scenario. In our instance, my father was a 6’1 salt-of-the-earth gentleman, who was tough but caring, commanded respect and portrayed humility. He was in great shape, the man of the house, and dedicated his life to his family and friends. He would always take the bullet before anyone else. Sacrificing pleasure in his life for others would in turn make him a happier person; a true man. Therefore making amends with the world after such a great man is diagnosed with such a horrible disease is not easy. I did it though, and want to pass on how.

Following his diagnosis, I did what every 23 year old young man would do. I packed my bags and booked an all-inclusive to Cuba. The mere shock of the entire situation was a little too much for me and we must do what keeps us sane. Loan behold, my father was all for it. I had just completed my first year in the military, one of my best friends was in a similar situation with his father, we both needed a break, so we took off. 7 days with a free mind. Trust me, we drank copious amounts of Cuba Libres attempting to figure out why life would throw such curveballs when we wanted to hit home runs. We met some incredible people on this trip and I did come back with a little more clarity (or so I thought).

I don’t want to dive too much into how he was sick because it’s honestly depressing. However, what I learnt was exponentially more than I could imagine. That summer, my training in the military continued. My best friend who was in the similar situation (his father had a brain tumour) was at the same level of training as I was with the Canadian Army. So we hit our summer training together. You want perspective? We were “sleep f*cked”, cold, wet, dirty, and definitely not comfortable, dug into a trench in a defensive position. The Canadian Forces have very realistic training. We were in the same machine gun trench together, in the worst conditions we’d ever seen. I remember a thunderstorm over head and rain just pelting down on us, my hands glued to the largest piece of metal available within a few kilometres, a C6 Machine gun. I remember looking at him and putting everything in perspective; we were standing, we could walk, run, we were getting the best training in the world, the most advanced clothing and weaponry, and most of all, we were healthy. There are no amounts of early mornings, late nights, pushups, soaking clothing, getting yelled at, or crawling through mud, that could compare to what our fathers were going through.

Perspective is everything, so we crushed that course. This was my first big lesson in life. What do you actually need? What do you require to get through your day? What can you not live without? You’d be surprised.

Following that summer, my father started to deteriorate. He went from a 10-15 year life expectancy to 1…welcome to ALS. His goal? Make it one year until his birthday on October 7th 2012.

Gordo did exactly what he should have. He spent as much time as possible down in Florida, worked hard to transition his business onwards within the family, and spent time taking in life. The only good part about him not going suddenly was how I had the opportunity to spend so much time with him. We spoke endlessly over glasses of Macallan 18 (“if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die drinking the good stuff”), both down south and over the summer of 2012 at my parents’ place. He made it to his goal, and on October 9th 2012, we brought him to the West Island Palliative care (incredible people). I’ll never forget his words to the doctor. The doc asked something along the lines of “how long would you like to live”. He responded as only he could, “Doc, I’m not here on vacation”. That night I gave him a  kiss on the forehead, said I love you, and left with my siblings and significant others. We all knew this was the last time we’d see him alive.

He passed away the following morning, October 10th 2012,  with my mom by his side, completely at peace. He accepted it and embraced his fate.

My father, my inspiration, mentor, best friend, man of the house, coach, leader, and shoulder to lean on, was now gone. I felt like I’d been holding my breath for the past 20 months. So begins the healing process.

“It has been said, time heals all wounds. I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone. ”  – Rose Kennedy

Well there goes my compass. There is no “right” age to lose a loved one. At every age you will have some type of void and deal with it in your own way. Luckily, I have an incredible family who all stepped up to help one another. My friends were there every day, and my on/off girlfriend who I had sent through an emotional rollercoaster was still by my side, title or not.

So how do you get back on track?

First…feel free to spin your tires a bit. I was utterly confused and completely lost. I needed to come to terms with his death and why it is possible. Why would someone who is so good be taken from us. I hadn’t even accepted that he was gone.

There’s a lot of crying

There’s a lot of questioning

My journey back to my feet started in the strangest of ways. March 2013 brought my friends and I down to Miami. I needed some time away and some serious distractions. One of the best week’s of my life was topped off by being front row and music blaring at Ultra Music Festival. Yes…this actually made a huge difference. Surrounded by 100,000 people, my friends, and definitely not sober, all the walls came crashing down. I accepted it. It was almost a little too cliche to be true, so I had to wait until the next day.

I woke up feeling better, feeling refreshed. I actually had some clarity. Did music save my life? Absolutely not. But, I did get a slap in the face a little wakeup call. It allowed me to somehow break down the walls and look at myself in the 3rd person. Gordo wasn’t taken from us, it was just life. This isn’t a fairytale, so don’t live like it is. I do believe everything happens for a reason, so why would such a great person die so early? There’s no answer, but perhaps his death shows others that despite being healthy, a great person, generous and humble, you can still be gone tomorrow. With a snap of your fingers, life can be over.

I remember a golfing buddy of my Dad’s told me his death changed him. He always wanted a Porsche. Nothing too crazy, didn’t have to be the best Porsche out there, just loved the lines and sound of a Porsche. This man had worked hard his whole life, was generous and kind, always put others first, and for once was going to treat himself a little. It’s not the Porsche specifically, it’s that we need to gift ourselves sometimes. It has taken me years to understand this and to sum it up. Not until recently have I understood.

If you want to have a $5 coffee at Starbucks, go have the coffee.

If you want your dream car, go buy it.

If you want to say NO and stay in, while your peers are pushing you to go out, then stay in.

From the little intangible events to the expensive over the top luxury items, if that is what you truly desire, then go for it.

Too often we do so much to please others. This doesn’t mean go blow all your money on something tangible, it means start putting yourselves first. My old man never ever put himself first. He had a fantastic life and was admired by so many, but he rarely took anything for himself. He took on the stresses of his business and provided so much for our family. My only regret is I wish i knew then what I realized now. I wish I would have had the nerve to stand up to him and say stop giving and start taking. Go take those golf trips more often. Buy the car you want. Buy the scotch you want (think he realized this with that Macallan 18), because deciding to do these things once your health is diminishing; It’s much too late.

Besides the basics, the lessons I learnt are simple:

  1. To deal with a substantial loss in your life, you will have to make your own personal changes. This means getting out of your comfort zone.
  2. If something tangible or intangible exist that you believe will make your life better, go for it. I’m not saying be gluttonous or selfish, I’m saying don’t forget about your most important asset…yourself.
  3. There is no explanation for why people die, only lessons to be learnt after the fact. Tomorrow may be your or my last, so embrace the present.
  4. Smile and say hello to people (seems basic…it isn’t)
  5. Everything in moderation, even moderation.
  6. Every once in a while, stop and make yourself aware of exactly where you stand. Look at yourself in the 3rd person , check yourself, then step back into your body and continue on.
  7. Appreciate the little things that truly make you happy. For instance, a coffee in the morning for me or a good conversation sipping vodka on the rocks. Doesn’t cost much, just your time and attention.

…and of course, it’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years.

4 thoughts on “See you on the other side, Pops

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