Grief is Guilt Wrapped Up for Christmas

Dad_winterIt made no sense to me.  It was just after 5AM, I was out shovelling the driveway and I was happy as a pig in shit. I was smiling.  I had the new Foo Fighters blasting in my ears, and I was making quick work of the snow.  I hate winter.  I hate snow.  I hate the cold.  Why was I enjoying this? By this point I’m basically dancing with the shovel, and every push of the big scoop to drop snow onto the front lawn has me two-stepping back before waltzing down to dig out the car.  I’m downright merry.  It’s disturbing but I go with it. 

It’s not until I’m sitting in my car admiring my work that a flashback hits me in the gut and I understand the giddy feeling.  It’s quickly replaced by embarrassment and sadness as I remember how much my selfishness was a burden on those around me when I was at my heaviest. 

When I was in my 20s I would sit in the house and listen to my Dad shovel the driveway because I couldn’t do it.   Just walking through the snow was enough to leave me winded at 460 pounds, and that was before I even lifted the shovel.  So instead, I hid inside – timing my shower so he’d have it done before I got outside.  I’d lay in bed pretending to sleep, not able to hear my mother’s yells to get my lazy ass outside and help my father.

I wasn’t lazy though, and he’d never ask me to help.  I may be rewriting history to ease my own mind, but I feel like he knew how much I struggled.  Even though my parents never mentioned my weight to me – I would have raged against them had they tried – I feel like he knew my limits and tried to protect me from the embarrassment of asking me to do things he knew I couldn’t do anymore.

I grew up on construction sites and renovations being Dad’s “gopher” and doing odd jobs.  It put money in my pocket in the summer and got me through more than one Christmas. At some point he stopped asking me to do that.  My size made me more of an inconvenience than a helper.  We never talked about it once, but I know he worried about my health.  Since his death Ma has told me that they’d talk about my size and share their worries with each other. My father, who struggled with his own weight later in life, said he couldn’t say anything to me because like so many parents he thought it was his somehow his fault.  

So, as the snow would blow in off the cliffs of the Atlantic, drifting high in our driveway,  I’d lay in bed sinking deeper within myself knowing I was sending my 2-pack a day, 50+ year old, overweight father out to shovel the driveway alone because I had squandered the most basic thing a son can be for his father: youthful. 

Dad is everywhere this time of year and I struggle with that. This is our fifth Christmas without him and if I’m being honest I thought it would be easier by now.  Remembering him isn’t what makes me sad, it’s remembering how little of me I shared with him.  I’m not just embarrassed that I didn’t help him shovel, I’m angered that I missed out on the experience, the conversation, his playful pushes, the funny way he’d quietly shovel his snow right into the part I was trying to clear just to see how long he could do it before I noticed.  I missed out on the stories of his mother sending him all over Reserve Mines as a kid to shovel out their family and friends, and warning him not to take more than a cookie or a biscuit as payment.  I missed out on the memories, and the longer he’s gone the more aware I become that what I do remember is all I’ll ever have, and every year it’s a struggle to keep those.  To keep his face in my mind as it actually was and not just how it looks in the pictures I keep.  To hear his voice as it was and not let time fade that away too. 

Sitting in the car with the snow melting on my boots I try to imagine what he’d say right now if he was here, sitting beside me, puffing on a smoke, double tapping the end with his thumb to drop the ashes out window into a small pile on the snow. I can see him there I can smell the smoke.  I can smell the old spice.  I see his jacket rise and fall with each breath. His black winter hat would be tossed on the dash, and he’d bend over trying to swat away clumps of snow stuck between the tongue of his work boots and the rolled-up cuffs of his jeans.  I try to imagine what he’d say and nothing comes out as he moves his lips. I don’t know what he’d say because in real life we never sat like this.

In fact I don’t know that he’d playfully push me in the snow.  I don’t know that he’d shovel his snow into the part I was trying to clear.  I don’t know that his mother made him shovel out their family and friends and refuse money.  I never got to have those conversations with him because I rolled over and pretended to sleep instead. 

So, of course I was giddy to be shovelling snow yesterday morning.  The changes I make won’t give me new memories of him, but they remind me to actually live now that I can.  I don’t “roll over and pretend” for anything anymore.  Last night I spent three hours shopping, going up and down every aisle in every store all over the city, with an amazing woman by my side every step of the way.  I couldn’t have done that a few years ago.

Grief is just guilt wrapped up for Christmas. Long after the tree is down and lights are away, twenty Christmases from now these memories will be mine and they will be real. There will be no guilt and no grief.  There was a moment and I lived it.  Being present is just about the best present you give the people you love.  I know that now – and while it’s been a hard lesson to learn, it’s probably the most important thing my father ever taught me.  I didn’t get it back then.  I do now.  I believe that happiness is a habit.  I believe that confidence is a habit.  I’m just starting to realize that peace might just be a habit too.

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