Wheat Kings and Pretty Things
I'm twelve. I'm sitting at a table the Golden Star Restaurant with my sisters on my right. To the left of me, my father—Curt. Across from him sits my dad, Rod. It's late September of 2001 and the two old friends talk about the attacks, the recently pulled Jimmy Neutron ads and us kids between wontons. Curt was up from Washington for the weekend and wanted to spend as much time with us as possible, so all of us went for dinner, without Mom. She was in New York, braving the terrorists to go shopping. It was strange to see my two dads together without the common denominator of Mom. What I failed to realize is that they were friends before my Mom even came around, even living together. They were the embodiment of "bros before hoes," my mother being the ho in question. She speaks to this day of their great relationship, even after her and Rod started seeing each other. No animosity between them at all.
That weekend was a whirlwind of on the fly "makin' up for lost time" dad advice like: "you don't wanna squeeze your bag, man," while I looked at my first pair of boxer shorts. He spoiled us rotten, buying us everything we even glanced at and we stayed with him in his hotel room, watching movies and eating room service. He played one song over and over and over in the car, Greg Brown's Just by Myself. He had a whole album, but that was the only song we liked, so it was on repeat for two days. We swam in the hotel pool, and he launched us off his massive back and pulled us down by our ankles until we peed with laughter. That was a weekend I'll never forget, which is a great thing because it was the last time we ever saw him.
My favourite part about that weekend memory is that my little sister, Amorette, was there with us. Amorette is Rod's daughter with my Mom. She was born long after Curt had left her as a single mother, yet he treated her like she was his own that weekend. He always did, she was our little sister no matter who was carting us around. The problem with Curt though, was that his visits were rare.
I only have four distinct memories of my father. If we go all the way back, when we lived on Patterson Drive, I remember when Amorette was too small to come with us. This is one of my first memories in general. All I have is the vision of a counter at Wonderland Toy and Hobby; I'm about waist high to an adult and I’m staring at jars upon jars of colourful, shiny candy sticks. Like candy canes with the tops straightened out, stripes and all. Then, we're in the back porch of the old house. It's so dark downstairs, the steps are swallowed by the void two-thirds of the way down. Cassandra and I stand in front of our crouched father and he's bawling. He hugs us and tells us he loves us so much. And then he's gone.
I have no idea what year it is, or how old I am. But, I had a second-hand Sega Game Gear, so I put it near '93. I was in the car for what seemed like days with a load of girls, one of being a cousin I just met. Paula, with whom I jived with right away, introduced me to Super Mario on this trip and I think, probably changed the course of my childhood. Aylla was there, my estranged eldest sister. She lived with her Mom after her and Curt split. He was a heart-breaker, leaving children all over Alberta. Well, not really—just us three. Grandma Nona, Curt, Paula, Aylla, Cassandra and I headed to Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Along the way I remember my father teaching me the trade secrets of flipping your t-shirts inside out and Penis Hygiene 101.
It's 1995 and I'm six. High on sugar, popcorn and Batman, I fly into the house with thoughts of the boy wonder flying through my head. Batman Forever had just blown my tiny mind—my young, tasteless mind. The phone rings upstairs and after short while, my Mom calls me up because he wants to talk to me. It's Curt. We have the basic awkward conversation that adults have with six-year-olds on the phone, but I remember telling him that, sadly, the Joker was not in the film, it was Riddler and Two-Face, and thankfully, Batman won.
And then we're out for Chinese. That whole trip, Curt shoved himself into these impressive-looking cowboy boots that took a good five minutes for him to pry off. My father wasn't a small man, and if my calves are any indication, papa had tree trunks. When he first got to the house, we all met him at the door for hugs, but then he sent us upstairs— “I’ll be a bit.” I'm pretty sure he just didn't want us to see him sit on the floor to get the proper leverage. He came upstairs with a suitcase of loot for us three kids.
Mom put on the coffee and Curt opened up the goodie bag. He proceeded to tell a little story about each gift before he handed it to the recipient. The girls got cute little stories, and cute little trinkets. Then he'd look at me, point his finger and proclaim, "And, for you! ...Nothin'!" and he'd move right along back to the girls. The reason for that is he had spent a pretty penny on an uncommon N64 game called, "WinBack: Covert Operations," therefore leaving me with a smaller stash of gifts. I never stopped playing that game. It was one of many gifts he gave me that were age-inappropriate. Let’s just say I was able to kill a ton of virtual people while I listened to the Adam Sandler albums he started sending me when I was ten.
When he left that last time, it was like Deja vu. We stood in front of him, he was crouched. He was bawling and telling us how much he loves us; how much he misses us. But then he was gone.
On the last day of school in grade eight, my friend David and I headed to my house to play Counter Strike after all the festivities at school had wrapped. I had dial-up internet, but we made it work. It was only 2003, c'mon. When I went to connect, the line (kids, this is a phone attached to the wall) had a voice mail I had to clear before we could connect. Punching in the code, I was still bullshitting with David as the message started. It was Grandma Nona, she sounds distraught. She names Rod, this message is for him. Then she says something about this morning, asphyxiated, a funeral in Cabri and instructions to call her back as soon as he gets the message. My stomach sank, but I didn't really understand, so I hit nine to save the message and connected to the internet.
We play the game for probably an hour before the internet went down and we packed it in. We walked down the street to rent The Pest, with John Leguizamo and walked back home with arms full of junk food. Halfway through the movie Mom comes home, so I meet her at the door to tell her that David is here. She's carrying some bags into the house and checking something out beside the door, but as soon as I saw her everything came crashing down onto me.
I blurt out, "Mom. Curt's dead."
She looks at me with a piercing dagger that I haven't seen since, and softly says, "Joel. Don't ever say that."
"No. Mom, there's a message from Grandma." We go upstairs, David left alone watching The Pest. The words I had heard were right. I watched my mother listen to the message and go pale. Curt was dead. They had found him in his garage, asphyxiated by exhaust.
He had a life full of struggles with drugs, money and commitment and I guess it finally claimed him. He was fifty-one. I was fourteen.
Grandma Nona herself passed away a few years ago now, and one thing I learned at the funeral changed my perspective on everything involving my father’s suicide.
The funeral was at Grandma's church in Assiniboia, she was loved by her town. Her small, farming community. There's only one bar in the place, and it's connected to our motel. It’s safe to say that my sisters and I inhabited it at any time we weren't with the family. One night, it was late and Aylla and I were alone. She's one of the most beautiful people I've ever met in my life, inside and out. I got the vibe for the first little bit of our time together, that she cared deeply about what we thought of her and was putting out a more presentable version of herself. My favourite part of the whole thing was when she relaxed, and her true self would slip out before she seemed ready; she's the funniest parts of Cassandra with my style of humour nailed down. Big sister indeed.
We were smoking out front and talking about our dad and grandmother. She's quite a few years older than me and has an entirely different perspective on them because she was older and had plenty of one on one time with them both. I had mentioned that I know nothing about our Grandpa or Nona's second husband. I knew that grandpa Morgan had died while our dad was a kid, but I never knew how. Aylla was aware and she told me what happened; he had committed suicide as well. The words fell out of her mouth and it dawned on me that I am the third in a line of men who kill themselves. I still struggle to believe it. My father knew the pain of losing a father so violently and so suddenly but chose to end himself in the same way.
It's like all the pieces fell into place with force and were spot welded down. I'm no stranger to the thought. I'm no stranger to the plan, the process. It's nothing new to me. At the time, I was twenty-four and I had been through multiple downward spirals that consumed my thinking with the end. As early as grade six, I remember holding objects that could end everything for me, with intent. There are marks all over my body from testing the waters. I've talked to professionals, my Mom, and pretty much every friend, lover and partner I’ve ever had about these things, and I’m so tired of being that guy.
I’ve always gravitated towards suicidal thoughts when things overwhelm me, and I constantly question if my own fate is predetermined by the blood in my veins. The smoking crater of family they both left behind is staggering, and I've only compounded on that group of people with my Mom's family, not to even mention my wife’s. It's not a matter of ego, it's a matter of perspective. If I were gone, a small village of people would be mentally displaced. A village of people defined by their tragedies as much as their triumphs. They deserve weightless hearts. My hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta has seen some of its best and brightest die by their own hands, and it's something that I can see ripple through every single person I know.
Everyone's parents die. Two-thirds of mine just happened quick and early. After the dust settled and I was able to see the lay of the land, I'm glad it happened when it did. I couldn't image being a forty-year-old man going through those emotions, because you are reduced to infancy. I was closer to the ground, so the impact was softer.