Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

At the End of the Day in Fort McMurray

I spent a lot of time with my father when he was dying.

My father died at 81 of lung cancer, a pale and emaciated man in comparison to the robust and ruddy farmer I had known my entire life. He died in a palliative care unit, lucid and coherent to the end, and while he slept a great deal he also talked as the end of his life neared, as he knew his time was running out.
I spent a week beside my father’s bed, reading quietly while he slept but there when he awoke so I could capture whatever words he said, as I knew any of them could be his last. My father was an opinionated man, with strong views on politics and the world. But those were not the things he spoke of as he died, you see. The man I grew up with and spent years debating over the kitchen table on things like unions and taxes, spoke not of politics but of his family, and his friends.

I have been thinking about my father a great deal recently. Our community is in the throes of something very dark in some ways, and as the days go on I see divisions growing deeper, and wider. On both sides of the discussion I see the development of a “if you aren’t with us you’re against us” mentality, one that worries me deeply as once the dust settles we will be, for better or for worse, in this all together once again.
I see friendships and relationships being damaged as people focus on their differences. Strong opinions have value, but so too does room for respectful debate and disagreement. We may not all see the situation the same way, but almost everyone involved shares a deep personal investment in this community, and we bring to the table that passion – and, if I am to be somewhat emotional – that love.

I have seen a friendship fray and crumble, and I am not sure it is reparable. I see it happening to others, too, as we become deeply involved in a mess that centres on politics. It seems of crucial importance right now, and of course it is important, but something is far more important – and that is our relationships with each other.
The hardest thing in our current civic turmoil is the divisions it is causing between people, good people who share a commitment and dedication to this community. We can disagree and debate while continuing to acknowledge that we come from a place of caring for our community, and respect for each other. We can do so without creating the kind of deep divisions that will, in the end, cause far more damage in the long run than any scandal ever can do.

My father and my uncle had a falling out many years before his death. It seemed important at the time, and I suppose it was. Bitter and angry words were exchanged, and then silence. One day after leaving the hospital I stopped at my parent’s home, worn out and exhausted from the emotional impact of watching someone I love die, and found a handwritten note from my uncle in their mailbox.
He had dropped by, he said, but he wasn’t sure if he should come to the hospital to see my father since they had not spoken in some time.

I went back to the hospital, and when he awoke I read my father the note. He did not hesitate. He asked me to contact my uncle to ask him to come to the hospital, and I fully believe my father intended to bury the dispute and lay to rest a long running bitter and angry feud that, at the end of his days, no longer mattered in the slightest.
My uncle never made it to the hospital.

My father died before he could come, and their bitter and angry words were the last ones they ever spoke to each other. I have never shared that story with anyone else, because it was in many ways a final moment between a father and a daughter who loved him so, and who respected him so deeply because he showed her what really mattered when it comes right down to it.
I share it with you today because I genuinely hope we remember what truly matters before it is too late, and before we irreparably damage too many relationships over a situation that one day will be long ago and long forgotten. It is a painful story to share, and I am in tears as I write it as I miss my father terribly and I will never forget the many lessons he taught me, including perhaps the most valuable one that he shared at the very end of his life.

Life is short. At the very end of our days what matters isn’t politics or our jobs or any of the other myriad things we obsess over. It is the relationships we develop in this life, and protecting them from harm should be our primary focus, especially during difficult and turbulent times – because one day it may be too late to make it to the hospital.

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