Cardiomyopathy is an ugly disease. Literally, it means “heart muscle disease” — the myocardium (heart muscle) deteriorates enough to lead to heart failure. When I was a wee bairn growing up in Newfoundland, it took my father from me. He was 40 years old.
In honor of the 14th anniversary of his death, I’ve written him a letter.
Wow. Fourteen years passed so quickly, eh? One second you’re here, the next you’re gone, and before you know it, time moves steadily forward. I sit here looking back on the story of my own life, and I can’t believe how brief your chapter was. In spite of that, it had such a profound effect on me.
I remember the things you did as clearly as if I saw you yesterday. Getting out of the taxi for our weekend visits, running up onto your patio and bursting in the door to watch your face light up when you saw Ashley and I. You’d let us have cereal for dinner if we wanted it, and you always had those soft chocolate chip cookies waiting for us. We’d watch ridiculous kids movies, or Tarzan. I especially liked the stories you told us about the original Tarzan and how he didn’t have to fake that yell. Trivia like that is still one of my favorite things, and I know it started with you. In the mornings you’d make us wash our faces and you’d brush our hair. You were always so gentle with the tangles. In spite of your sickness, you’d let Ash and I sleep in your bed while you took the couch on those weekends.
I remember your fridge, covered with pictures Ash and I had torn from colouring books. I remember tucking them into your casket so you could take them with you.
I remember the year I wanted a Polly Pocket, one of the ones with the sidewalk on the front. I knew they were expensive, but I had no concept of budgets in those days and I simply HAD to have one. To this day I wonder how much food you went without to give me what I wanted. I still remember how you made Polly have diahrrea and run up the stairs to her little bathroom. All those farting noises and the sigh of relief — I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard.
I remember learning about how bad smoking is at school, and Ash and I confronted you about your habit. You promised to quit smoking, and I really believed you’d done it. When we were going through your things after your death and I found a pack of cigs in your coat pocket, I was so angry! You had lied to us! But now that I’m a lot older, I appreciate the lengths you went to to let us pretend we’d gotten you to quit. That was really sweet.
I remember the clothes you wore — jeans and a light flannel shirt with a white undershirt. Your boots and how often you’d shine them. Daddy, you were stylin’ long before I knew what that meant. I remember how you smelled, too. Like a father. I hope you enjoyed your regular Christmas gift of a tie and aftershave. Every year when I see those little gift packs in the store I think about how often you got them for Christmas.
When I’d sing to you over the phone, my young voice untrained and offkey, you’d listen patiently and encourage me to keep singing. When I told you I’d grow up and marry Steven Peach (the first boy I ever crushed on), you’d laugh and say, “You really like that boy, don’t you?”
I wonder if you already knew you wouldn’t be around to see it.
I remember your face all lit up in the hospital when Ash and I came to visit. You told us about a possible treatment for your heart condition — a replacement valve from the heart of a pig. You sat with us and we all dreamed about how life would change if you got the surgery. You told us you’d be able to walk around with us (I remember how frustrated you’d get when you got winded just walking to the corner store), you said you could finally be “a real dad”.
You didn’t realize you already were.
I remember the last phone conversation I had with you. After the normal chitchat about school and what I’d been up to, you took a different turn. “I want you to know that no matter what, you and Ashley are more beautiful than all the angels in heaven.” There was something so sad in that sentence, so much pain and longing… I had never heard you speak to me so candidly. In that one sentence, you prepared me for what was to come.
But no one is prepared to lose their father. The news crashed down on me and ripped my world out from under my feet. I cried once, hard, in front of everyone. Then I just knew I had to be strong for Mom and Ashley, and I tried my best not to cry around them. I hardly cried at all. I know now I was in shock at having lost you. I didn’t recognize you when I went to the viewing. You looked so foreign, all peaceful, your face no longer red from high blood pressure. I kissed your cheek.
When they put you in the ground, I finally cried again. The funeral was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sit through and all my attempts to be brave failed me. It felt like the longest nightmare and I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept I wouldn’t see you again.
But time really does heal all wounds. As the years passed, you became less of a missing piece and more of a spiritual guide. In moments of pain and weakness, I would imagine you were right there with me, holding my hand and stroking my hair. You got me through my first heartbreak. You got me through a lot of bad times, especially when I was a teenager spinning out of control. I can’t help but wonder what our relationship would be like if you were still alive. If I could pop in to see you and make you that sandwich you always talked about, then sit down and gripe about work and my relationship. I’d have taken care of you as you got older. I’d still call you every night, just like I did when I was a child. I’d appreciate every moment, as I do now. When you lose a parent and are faced with death at a young age, you tend to learn quickly that every moment counts because the next moment isn’t promised. Time is fleeting so you have to enjoy everything while you can.
If the time comes that I get married, I know you’ll be there although I won’t see you. If I ever have a child, he’s already got your name. I used to think I wanted to die so I could be with you sooner, but now I understand the only way I can do you justice is to live a good life and be a good person. I can keep you alive through my memories of you.
Fourteen years is a long time, Daddy, but I still love you just as much as I did back then.
When I think back to that time in my life, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I don’t have enough words to describe to you just how much I loved my father and how losing him helped shape me into the person I am today. I keep him in the back of my mind and try to make him proud while remaining true to my own hopes and dreams. November is a tough month for me, but I go forward with the knowledge that tomorrow is another day and life is good.
I hope I’ve made him proud.
In loving memory of Gary Charles Sheppard, May 2, 1958 — Nov. 14, 1998