I wrote this on December 5th, while flying to Whitehorse from Vancouver. It was the first time I’d returned to Whitehorse since experiencing a very personal tragedy on January 27, 2016.
This is a story about love, loss, depression, how I nearly lost my everything, and how I recovered. Thank you for allowing me to tell this story.
How fitting is it that my final trip in my current role is one that sends me back to the Yukon? This return to Whitehorse is a bit of a pilgrimage for me. It was in that same place, 11 months ago, where I got the most devastating phone call I’d ever received. My dad called me, voice quivering, and told me that he had some bad news for me. We’d had concerns about his health for some time, so my instantly expected that he’d tell me he had cancer or some kind of other, beatable, condition. What he told me next shook my world: “My mom’s gone”.
Flashback to the evening of January 26, 2016. I’d just gone for a walk across a very frozen Whitehorse to have dinner at Boston Pizza, and had returned to my room at the Yukon Inn. My phone rang. I saw the name “Brenda Norris” and groaned. She always called to lecture me on something stupid I’d said online, and she never stopped talking once she got on the phone (I didn’t realize it until it was too late, but I truly valued these calls, and they made me a better person). Reluctantly, I answered the phone. She wished me a happy birthday. Caught up in my work on a large condo complex in the Yukon’s capital city, I had almost forgotten that my birthday was the following day. This call was a great call. My nan told me that she thought my parents were proud of the man I’d become. She said that she saw potential in me politically, even though we were polar opposites on the political spectrum. We also had a conversation about my great nan, her mother, who’d died on that same day 5 years earlier. She told me, “I miss my mom. I wish I could see her today”. Our last topic of conversation was my relationship with Meghan. She told me that it seemed to be about time that I seriously considered putting a ring on Meghan’s finger. Fittingly, when I finally did put one on her finger in September of this year, I used the $100 my nan gave me for that last birthday towards Meghan’s ring. Our call finished with my nan telling me she loved me. I rarely said it back, but on this night, I told her that I loved her too. Looking back, I’m so glad that those were the last words I said to her.
I’d lost family before, but never quite like this. When I lost my Grandma, my mother’s mother, I was too young to truly understand the gravity of the situation. I wasn’t old enough to have really grown as a human being. I didn’t remember much of the time I spent with her, because I was so young when I did spend that time with her. With my nan, it was different. We’d gone to so many Leafs and Blue Jays games together throughout the first 14 years of my life. She made every effort to come out and visit us in Alberta once we moved out west. She truly loved Jasper National Park – especially Maligne Lake. When my dad was away in camp at Suncor or CNRL, and I got in trouble at school, it was my nan who called me to scold me. When I was dealing with my worst bouts of depression, it was my nan who helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I had a bad breakup (and I had quite a few of them), it was my nan who reassured me that I’d find someone better – and she was right. When I posted a photo gallery from my latest trip to Nunavut, or a long road trip that Meghan and I had taken, I was always assured countless notices on Facebook, informing me that my nan had commented on every last photo.
When I got off the phone with my dad on the morning of January 27, 2016, I didn’t know what to do. I called the one person who truly seemed to understand what my nan meant to me, perhaps even more than I did; I called Meghan. Sobbing, I told her what my dad had told me. She left work early that day to go spend time with my dad and my middle brother, Tyler. I couldn’t be there for my family, so the love of my life stepped up. My nan was right – I needed to put a ring on Meghan’s finger. My dad flew to Toronto that night. I had to finish my project in Whitehorse. I wiped away the tears and got back to work. That night, I went into Earl’s in Whitehorse. My waitress had a listening ear, so I told her about the events of that day. For my birthday, she gave me free dessert. For my loss, she filled me with beer. I wrote a long email to Earl’s head office commending this great waitress. I hope she found out about it.
When I finished work on January 28, I had the urge to do something good for someone I didn’t know. My nan was always a very charitable person. She had her Masters in Social Work, and spent much of her life helping others. I walked over to the grocery store, filled a cart with non-perishables, and dropped the whole lot in the Whitehorse Food Bank bin. I’m going to make this a tradition on my birthday every year, in my Nan’s honour. This year, I plan on sending a donation, in her name, to the True Patriot Love Foundation. My father left home for the military in his teens, and my nan “lost” her own father following his stint in World War II. It seems like the most fitting charity to which I can donate money on the one year anniversary of her passing.
I flew to Vancouver that Saturday, and then on to Toronto. My dad picked me up from the airport. That Sunday was one of the toughest days of my entire life. To see my nan in a wooden box in the funeral home shattered me. My aunt had guests over at her house following the memorial service to celebrate my Nan’s life, and it was truly beautiful. It warmed my heart (at least temporarily) to see so many people coming out to pay their respects. There was family I hadn’t seen in years. There were old family friends that I’d completely forgotten. There were people I’d never even met. All of us were gathered there for the same reason, and it helped us cope at the time. If there’s one positive that came out of the experience, I feel like it brought my father and I closer together.
My nan was married to a former member of the US Air Force. When she passed, we asked him what he wanted to do now. We knew he was better off returning to his hometown in South Carolina, where he could receive the care of the local VA, and thus we decided to bring him home. We drove through New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia before finally stopping at a Waffle House just north of the North Carolina border for a meal. Charlie (my Nan’s husband) had a clear look of sadness in his eyes throughout the trip, although I wasn’t entirely sure that he knew what was going on due to his refusal to take his medication. There was a moment in that Waffle House where it seemed that things finally clicked for Charlie. He looked up at my dad, and in a thick South Carolinian accent, he told my dad, “your ma’ sure loved Waffle House”. I’m not sure why this moment stood out so strongly in my mind, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We dropped Charlie off in South Carolina and headed north through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan before crossing the border from Detroit to Windsor. I believe that, at the end of the day, my dad and I will look back and see this trip, under these awful circumstances, as once of the most important moments in our father-son relationship.
I flew to Calgary for a charity event that following weekend. It kept me occupied, but once I was alone again, it was hard to keep my emotions completely hidden. Meghan could see that I was hurting. This went on for months. She told me that I seemed distant. Truth be told, I felt distant even in my own head. I was deep in another bout of depression, and this time, I didn’t have my nan to help me through it. I made a lot of mistakes during these months, and hurt people I cared about. All along, Meghan stuck by my side. This helped me to realize that I am so, so incredibly lucky to have her. I buried myself in political debate and work to get through this time, but it really didn’t help as much as I would’ve liked it to.
A lot has happened since I lost my nan on January 27. I moved into my first house. I got two dogs. I got engaged and started planning my wedding. I’m feeling better today, although this return to Whitehorse has my emotions feeling a little more fresh than they’ve felt in a while. I love Whitehorse, and I know my nan would’ve loved it too, and knowing that will likely help to ease these emotions in the long run. I miss my nan. I always took her for granted and never really got to tell her how much she truly meant to me, or how often she saved me from myself in my very worst moments. Perhaps what hurts the most is knowing that she’ll never see my house. She’ll never meet my dogs. She’ll never watch my reaction as I catch my first glimpses of Meghan in her wedding dress. These are things that I always pictured her being involved in.
This year has been tough, but I am a stronger person for it. I am a better person because I had my nan in my life for 25 years, pushing me in the right direction. She’s gone, but the memories I have of her will last a lifetime. It took a long time, but I’ve now accepted that. She was a pain in the ass at times, but she was our family’s pain in the ass, and I know I’m certainly not alone in feeling that way. We miss her. We’ll always miss her. That’s not ever going to change. I want to thank each and every person who has helped me get through this year, whether it’s my fiancée or just some random folks I’ve met through politics that have facilitated healthy debate.
If you’ve read this piece all the way to the end, I’d like to thank you too. You likely have experienced a loss of your own at one point or another, and my heart goes out to you on that loss.
“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”
– Brett Kissel