(An earlier draft of this post was available to Patreon supporters.)
Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, and it was also three weeks since my dad died.
It was a hard day. It has been a hard three weeks. It was a hard stretch before that. It has been a long night, and the night is not over. But the light returns. I know that the light returns. I know that even in the darkest night and the deepest gloom, there is light.
The stars exist. And some of the stars that light our night skies are many centuries dead – still, they glow. Legacies of light, a physics of remembrance. I think that there is something like this in grief, too. A way of light continuing.
And there are fireflies and other bioluminescent plants and animals. Lights in deep gloom. In the further depths of dark ocean, in the forests, in the wide open spaces that can feel like endless empty. There is something like this in grief, too.
There is always light, somewhere. There is always light returning eventually. Sometimes it just takes time to travel to us, for us to travel to the light, for us to find a way to glow, for the small and precious glowing thing to show itself. The long dark is hard, but it is not forever.
I’ve been reflecting on the legacies that my dad left me, the legacies that I want to continue.
I wrote to my friend about the memories of my youth and my feelings about my dad. Hugh said that, in reading my letter about my dad, they could see that he gave me “part of the thing we need most in this world: a sense of urgent justice.”
And this is true. When I think about what my dad gave me, and what I cherish most in myself, it is that sense of urgent justice.
This urgent justice was, in its best and most cherished expression, justice tied to love. Justice tied to acceptance. Justice tied to empathy. Justice tied to an awareness of power and privilege, and an intentional choice to side with the marginalized.
I saw my dad express this justice tied to empathy and awareness of power many times in my life. Those stories have been close to me these last few weeks, surfacing again and again. Luminescent.
In the week after his death, when I was updating An Invitation to Celebrate to include him, and to invite people to celebrate the life of a loved one, I wrote –
“He taught me to always watch for the hurting people and to connect with and care for them. That’s still how I live my life, and it’s my favourite thing about myself. It comes from my dad.”
This is justice.
This is the urgency of justice – to watch for the people who are hurting, to connect with them and to care for them. Justice and love are tied together, braided into a strong triple-strand with the hope that justice and love can light the path to something better, something more possible.
My small Solstice ritual included writing my dad a letter – the first letter I’ve been able to write him since he died. I told him that I love him, that I will not forget him, that he was good and worthy and that I will hold onto many of the things he taught me. I named the threads I will hold onto:
a sense of urgent justice
a deep appreciation for the power of good story
a commitment to compassion and acceptance
These are some of the lights my dad offered me. Lights that are still in my sky.
And every light casts a shadow, so along with these lights I acknowledge failures and complexities. Actions that align with injustice, stories that cause harm, cruelty and rejection instead of compassion and acceptance. These shadows were present in my own life, and in my dad’s life and in our relationship, but they do not cancel out the light. Part of how I will honour my dad is by holding the light, and not denying the shadow.
What those failures and ruptures and omissions, those shadows, offer is the invitation to return to alignment with values of justice, good story, compassion, acceptance.
Fail, and return.
Fail, and choose to come back.
Fail, and then breathe, cry, grapple with guilt and shame, and return again, again, again.
I did not include this in my letter, but it is also true that another legacy I will carry forward from my dad is a deep value of connection. In this, too, we both failed and returned, failed and returned.
I wrote this two weeks ago –
One week since dad stepped out of this story and into another.
I woke up at 4:30. I set an alarm. I didn’t want to sleep through it, to sleep through the slipping from the first week to the second week, to sleep through marking and remembering those ten minutes between when Domini woke me up and when dad slipped away.
I had a plan for the day, to get through this day. It was a pretty good plan, I think.
But I got the wind knocked out of me before I could do it, knocked off the plan, smashed hard into a wall I saw coming but still somehow didn’t expect. Maybe just didn’t expect the timing of it. Didn’t expect it this morning, like that.
I went swimming instead.
Dad and I used to swim at the same pool – Vecova. Helped my fibro, helped his pain, too. We crossed paths a few times. Not enough.
I have spent the last hour reading old emails.
‘Hello my first born, you know, I hope, that I am proud of you. I miss you.’
‘Hi dad, haven’t heard from you in a while. I miss you.’
‘Good morning, Tiffany. I sometimes feel that you and I are growing further and further apart and I do not know how to counter that.’
‘Hey Dad, how are you? I miss you. I love you!’
‘You have no idea how much I miss talking to you; working on a treasure hunt for you; and just being able to connect with you. Even though you are a fully realized adult and are demonstrably moving forward I still think of you as someone who, at one time, counted on me to help you work through some of your issues. I wish that were still the case.’
‘Hi dad, I know you’re probably busy but I thought I’d try again. How are you doing?’
We both tried so hard, for so long.
We both wanted something different.
We were both reaching and reaching and reaching and not quite getting there.
It is hard to read these emails, each of us repeatedly reaching out, somehow not able to get past the missing and find connection.
There is a deep ocean of grief in me, for what we had and have lost, for what we wanted and were not able to find, for what was painful between us, for what was precious between us.
It is a very hard day, today.
Despite how hard it was, we kept trying. We valued connection – we both valued connection with each other – enough to keep trying. To keep coming back.
And I will carry that with me, the knowledge that continuing to try holds value, and that even when it isn’t perfect, it is good and worthy.
I lit four candles for the Solstice.
A black candle for the grief, the loss, the long dark.
A green candle for justice, and for the growth that comes from aligning with justice.
A red candle for love and compassion and empathy and acceptance, the sparks that tell justice where to focus, how to grow.
A white candle for hope and renewal, for the willingness to fail and come back, for the light that we can turn to, phototropic, moving towards what is good and life-giving.
The photo is of my hand in my dad’s hand. I took it on Thursday, as I sat with him. Holding hands will always remind me of what he taught me – three squeezes for “I love you,” four squeezes for “I love you, too.”
I will write this up in different ways over time but for now I want to share that I spent a lot of time in the last week holding my dad’s hand.
We tried, for so long, to find our way to each other.
We did not always have an easy time of it.
There was distance that neither of us wanted and neither of us knew how to resolve. There was a lot of pain.
We spiraled in towards each other – a phone call, a dinner, a visit. And then we spun out again, distant, disconnected. Not able to find a way to feel close. I believe that we both wanted something different. I believe that my dad wanted the kind of closeness that I also wanted. We did the best that we could.
(My sister, who had her own hard path and deep valleys of disconnection with dad, keeps reminding me of this – We did the best we could. We all did the best that we could. It is enough. It was always enough. It will always be enough. We all did the best that we could. My sister is a miracle. I spent a lot of time over the last week holding hands with her, too.)
There were also so many cherished moments, both in my childhood and in the long apartness of adulthood.
There were so many gifts in the relationship. So many legacies that continue in me, in my life, in my values and my skills and the way I approach my work and the world. As I move through this process and write my way through my feelings, I hope that the stories of these gifts, legacies, values, and skills will be captured in shareable ways. I want to find a way to make these things visible, to give them names, to rescue them from memory and put them into narratives. I treasure them. I cherish these sparkling memories and gifts from my dad, and the distance we sometimes felt does not eclipse them.
There is never just one single true story. Not of a person, not of a place, not of a relationship.
I am thankful to my dear friend Patti who, echoing my sister’s wisdom, wrote to me and said, “I hope you find solace in knowing that for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve worked so hard at being in good relation with your dad. You carried some weight because of this and I’d like to gently suggest that you have been there for him and others in your family as part of your loving kindness, your gifts… Although our minds try to trick us that we might have done more or differently, you did everything the way it was supposed to have occurred.”
On November 14, my dad and his partner called to let us know that the doctor’s appointment had not gone as they had hoped. Just the week before, my dad had said he felt that the latest treatment was working. It was not. The doctor let them know that a likely timeline was 3 weeks to 3 months.
I was in Toronto when I got the call. I flew back as scheduled two days later, attended the Ally Toolkit Resource Fair on the Sunday, presented my Networks of Care presentation at a lunch and learn and again at the Ally Toolkit Conference on Monday. I was supposed to see him Tuesday, but the roads were terrible and I hadn’t got winters on my car, he told me to stay home, that we had time. I worked 13 hours on Wednesday. Writing this, I feel hot shame and regret settling behind my sternum. I wasted a whole week.
But we had been chatting daily over that time. I sent him pictures of art my littlest stepkid had made, and he asked if she would draw him a picture of an upside down Christmas tree (he has had upside down trees for years – they have more space for ornaments).
On Thursday, my nesting partner and littlest stepkid and I went over, and he snuggled with her and saw her art. Her picture is now framed and sitting by his tree, a 5-year-old’s rendition of an upside down Christmas tree, and presents, and ornaments, and stick figures, as he had requested. He and I chatted, and my sister came over, and it was good. It was hard to see how quickly things had changed, but it was good to see him.
I saw him almost every day after until his final moments at 4:40 am on November 30.
There are a lot of memories I want to capture from this week of time together, but right now, in this post, I just want to name and honour and make visible that in this week, we found our way to each other.
In this last week, he wanted Domini and me to be there.
He let us be there.
We orbited each other for so long, our trajectories never quite lining up to allow us to move together, to be in closeness, to be, as Patti insightfully named it, in right relation. But in this last week, we were there. We were there together with him and his partner. It took a long time, and it’s so hard that it only happened in this way at the very end, but our circuitous path lead us finally together.
This is the tribute my sister and I wrote for him and shared on Facebook.
David Maxwell loved books and travel and people. He loved justice and kindness and connection. He loved the precious life that he had co-created with his partner and his friends.
He lived in Nigeria, America, Canada, Croatia, and Costa Rica. And he lived in Italy, too. His favourite place in the world.
Wherever he went, he collected friends and he kept them, tucked away into his contact list, cherishing and reconnecting with them regularly. His Christmas Day and New Years phone calls to friends around the world, often starting in the early hours of the morning and going for hours and hours, were a feature of our childhood home and a tradition that continued long after we had all left that house, dispersed in four directions.
We will borrow his own turn of phrase and share that in the early morning of November 30 our dad stepped into Eternity. A long and difficult battle with cancer has come to a close. He knew that God was there with him, waiting for him. His faith was important to him, and he had an incredible ability to connect with people of many faiths.
Domini, Tiffany, and his partner Glenda were with him. His sister Ruth, who had been with us for most of the previous few days, arrived shortly after. He went with grace, surrounded by the kind of love that holds space for a whole person and for all the complexity of that person. It was deep and intentional love that surrounded him in his last days.
This experience has been incredibly challenging as we battled to process how quickly things changed. But it was also a beautiful and precious experience that we will be eternally grateful to have had with him.
We each knew him in different ways, we each have a different story of David Maxwell – not a coin with two sides and an edge, he was a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, full of rooms that few people had seen. He was a pop-up book, full of pages that became something totally new when you pulled the right tab or turned the wheel. He was an upside down Christmas tree, unexpected, decorated with unique and beloved ornaments – old ones and new ones, soft ones and hard ones, some that glitter brightly and some in the shadows.
He took that last step on his long journey while he was at home, his bed set up by the window and the view, as he had always wished.
We miss him.
We love him.
We turn the page into this new chapter, not ready. How could we ever be ready? But we are better prepared because of what he brought to our lives. His legacies in our lives will continue, will live through in our kids, in our own values of justice and kindness and connection, in our own love of books and travel and people. In our own complexity.
We know that Dad’s influence and connections stretch across decades and oceans alike, his chosen family and friends have lost a precious connection. We offer our love and support to all those who will be grieving alongside us. We would love to hear your stories of him, his life, and who he was in your life. We would love to know him better through you.
Among other books on the go, dad was most of the way through Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon Blood series and he was enjoying the books immensely. If you need a gift for a fantasy lover this coming season, consider one last recommendation from David Maxwell.
Originally posted on Facebook
I’m taking this week off, and then I’ll sit down and figure out how to move through this time.
I had an idea this morning of something I would like to do, a way of creating a project around this time, and when I expressed anxiety that I was doing this ‘wrong’ by thinking about projects, my beloved Nathan said, “You have literally always taken what you are working with and gifted community with the opportunity to connect directly and in parallel. It is one of your ways. One of the ways your light shines so people who have belongingness with you can find their way to you in the dark. I could not think of a more you way to grieve. And I could not think of a more honourable tribute to your relationship with your Dad.”
So, we’ll see what happens with that after this week of gentleness and space.
I know that this experience has been profound.
I know that it will change the trajectory of at least some of my work.
That it will change the trajectory of some of my own stories of myself, and of myself in relationship with my dad, and of my dad.
I know that I will find a way to bring this experience into my community work, and I am thankful that this community of support is here with me.
Edited to add: I did create the project I mentioned.
An Invitation to Celebrate has been completely updated to include an option to celebrate the life of a loved one.