The Gift of a Step-Mom

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Once upon a time, I met a woman named Gil. She was an unexpected addition to my life, an add-on to a cherished relationship. I was polite during our first meeting. I behaved as graciously as I could, considering I didn’t trust that she would stick around. She was my Dad’s new girlfriend, and while my Dad was a handsome and charming fellow most times, he also hosted a dark, brooding side. When he slid into that state of dispiritedness, the demons that haunted his past eventually escaped into the present, and he would become a miserable man. I knew from experience it would take a strong woman to put up with this type of episodic behaviour. So, when Dad brought Gil into my life as an unexpected gift, she was a gift I didn’t ask for, and one I thought was fleeting at best. Boy, was I wrong.

My mom died twenty years ago, and in her absence, she has missed watching my kids grow up and graduating, she has missed chiding me over my tattoo’s, she has missed encouraging my pursuit of writing, and she has missed meeting her great-grandchildren. My mom missed so much by dying too young. Yet, despite the absence of my mom, I was fortunate  enough to share all of my family’s milestones with a wonderful woman named Gil.

This once upon a time stranger, became a treasured friend enriching my life with her never-ending wisened words and exuberant laughter. Our relationship deepened even further when my Dad became housebound with cancer. After his treatments were done, and all hope for recovery was gone, the only wish he had left in his heart was to die at home. Gil made that final dream come true, and while I often went to help, it was Gil that bore most of the burden. She never complained, and her empathy for him was inspiring. It is only in the most difficult of circumstances that we finally come to understand the true nature of people in our lives. During this terrible time, Gil was a stone of strength.

So, it is with great sadness that in the midst of this chaotic world today, the best gift my Dad ever gave me became tattered and worn, a thin shadow of her former self. She was diagnosed with cancer, and in only a matter of months, it had extensively invaded her body, and quite soon after, death rapidly spirited her away. 

Gifts, as I have learned, come in all shapes and sizes, in all styles and wrappings, in all colours and patterns, and the best ones are people. In honour of my step-mom, Gil, I hope that you become one who steps forward to offer themselves as a friendly soul in difficult times. 

It changes lives. God bless you, Gil.

A Good Life

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Alvin Richard Mitchell  May 12, 1940 — August 2, 2016

“That was when the world wasn’t so big and I could see everywhere. It was when my father was a hero and not a human.” — Markus Zusak

My dad, Alvin was born into a family as the oldest of two children. During his early years he excelled at annoying the crap out of his younger sister, Shirley. Yet, somehow despite the fact he was a shit disturber, he remained the apple of his Mom’s eye. He adored his Mother until the end of his time. “She was a great woman,” he would say  emphatically. “A hard working woman —And boy could she swing an axe.”

He was raised to be a tough farmboy, who wasn’t allowed the luxury of using excuses for unfinished work. As a result of his upbringing with high expectations he became a determined individual. Al was always up for a challenge. He went straight from the farm fields, and right into the oil patch to earn his livelihood as a rig hand. Then when the jobs on the rigs slowed for spring breakup, he joined the Navy on a whim. He became the ships signalman. He travelled the seas from San Francisco to Singapore. On shore leave in Victoria, B.C. he met his future wife, Gail. Then shortly after, Alvin’s father, Walter, injured his leg in a farming accident and was unable to work. Under those circumstances, Alvin was given a compassionate discharge from the Navy in order to return home and run the family farm. Once Walter’s leg was healed he went back to farming, and once again Alvin found himself looking for work. It didn’t take long before he was hired on through the forestry as a timber cruiser, and once again his amazing work ethic led him into a position working as a Forest Officer for the Alberta Forest Service.

During the next five years, at separate intervals, Alvin became a proud/confused father to three bouncing/ squealing baby girls. During this time, it was with great pleasure that Al took night classes to earn his pilots licence. Eventually the trials of continually dealing with people within the rules of a bureaucratic government job took its toll, and he escaped. He bought the family farm from his father, Walter. He worked the land and raised cattle for many years until he became too cranky and fed-up to handle one more day of cow shit and tractor exhaust.

Alvin retired to British Columbia, with his second wife, Gil, to a life of fishing, curling, and golfing. He even had the occasional game of ‘Why the hell did I play ball? I can hardly walk‘, with a slow-pitch team called the Brew Crew, in Robson, B.C.

It’s funny, my Dad never considered the possibility that cancer might snuff out his life. I’m not sure why he hadn’t, after a lifetime of smoking he should have known the big C would be the logical result. Oddly enough it didn’t take hold in his lungs, it took root in his bowels. They operated, and then treated him with chemo and radiation. He toughed it out. As time went on, I knew for a fact that he would have preferred a bolt of lightening, rather than the long drawn out treatments, making him feel sicker than the illness itself. It was a shocking experience for him after a lifetime of good health.

When the cancer came back, it sapped his strength, and ate his body. The damage caused by the sickness angered Alvin, “I look like a goddamn concentration camp victim,” he would say. And he did. I could have learned every single bone in a humans skeleton on his ravaged body. Yet, Dad still breathed.

The vibrant man of action that I had known all my life was now replaced by a ghost of what he had been. He was a mere shadow of his former self, and he spent his final days staring out the window, and watching the river flow along. I could see in his wistful gaze, that he wished for the strength to toss in a hook and snag a fish one last time. In the confines of his living room, the constant drone of the television sounded; hockey, golf, curling, and of course, both the morning and nightly news, for both Alberta and British Columbia. And then for some bizarre reason Alvin choose, ‘My Five Hundred Pound Life’ as a short term favourite. The fragility of a human life had never seemed so clear for this man who had once sailed around the world. Now, confined to his living room by his illness, it was there in that small space, where he found comfort in small things. He sat in his recliner, sipped on his coffee, and pulled deeply on his cigarette. They were the only things he had the strength to do.

I asked if he had any regrets. If there was anything he would have liked to change about his past life. I watched him ponder that question as he inhaled another lungful of smoke. “No,” he said as he paused tilting his head, and tapping the ashes off his ciggy. “Well— I don’t think so,” he replied in his gritty voice. “I’ve had a pretty good life.” He nodded slowly. “A pretty good life.” And then he offered me a grin, weathered and worn. The familiar smile that all his friends and family loved, the one that invited you to smile along. And of course a person would. That was Alvin, that was my Dad in his final days. Gil’s cinnamon buns for breakfast, a good cup of coffee, and his smoke. He was a simple man, satisfied with the abundance of ordinary things. Nothing fancy for him in his faded flannel, thread bare, plaid shirt, his favourite attire— with, of course, a pocket to hold all the lighters he would inadvertently borrow when looking for a light.

It’s a painful process watching your Dad whither away. He was my hero when I was young. I thought the sun choose him to shine on all day long. I remember being a bobbling child and following his light around just to feel it’s warmth. He walked with giant steps, and towered over all things. He was the most handsome, athletic, brilliant Dad that anyone could ever wish for. I felt bad for all the other kids with ordinary Dads.

As age often does, there came a time I saw my Dad as a mortal. He struggled, but he did the best he could. He taught us the basics to succeed in life. First and foremost, he instilled a strong work ethic in his girls, Holy Hannah, the work ethic was strong. Later in life Dad said, “I know I was hard on all you girls, but it’s important in life to do a good job, it shows strong character.”

Growing up on the farm our Dad taught us how to drive, disc, rake hay, give a strong left hook, hammer, paint, shoot, fish, and run the grain auger while keeping body parts safe. He taught us to skidoo—but I missed the lesson on avoiding trees. He taught us how to dance to the oldies, the jive, the twist and the two-step. I may have kicked my sisters inadvertently. He schooled us on poker, and how to lose the entire contents of your piggy bank at poker. All great lessons.

When he became a grandfather, he literally beamed when spending time with his grandkids, a sunflower would have been persuaded to swivel on it’s stalk to follow the light in his heart.

My Dad died at the age of 76. He was the oldest, young-hearted  person, I ever knew. He will forever be missed. For such a slender fellow he sure took up a big space in plenty of hearts. God, Bless him.