(content note: death, dying)
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.
(Originally shared on my Patreon.)