The Apartment

After my father’s book sold, he suddenly had money.  A lot of money.  According to him he was a millionaire, and while I suspect that this was likely an exaggeration, the book did make it to #10 on MacLean’s Magazine‘s national bestseller list.  He spent money like it was in endless supply.  He rented a large office (with a shower!) to work on his next book (a spy novel, which he never finished), and from which to work out various investment deals.  He only carried 20s or 50s in his wallet and dished them out liberally.  He bought a half-million dollar house to live in with his wife and new baby (my half-sister).  And he rented an apartment.

We never discussed why he needed an apartment, but he told me not to tell my step-mother about it.

He also started drinking heavily and using cocaine.

I first found out about the cocaine during a conversation in his car, where I expressed some concern that my brother was smoking (cigarettes).  My father started to grill me:

cocaine“What about drugs?  Is he doing drugs?”
“I – I don’t know.  Maybe?”
“What do they look like?”
“Dad, I said I don’t know if –”
“Do they look like this?!!
And he pulled out a bag of cocaine.
“What?  Dad, no.”
“You can tell me.  You can come to me.  I’d rather you come to me than get it off the street.”

I’m a little fuzzy on the rest of the conversation*.  I think I just changed the subject.


During one of my visits to him in Toronto, my father took my best friend and I out to a nightclub.  This was clearly designed to impress us:  he made a point of telling us that it was a member’s only club.  He bought our drinks (we were underage) and we got very, very drunk.  Afterwards, he offered us his apartment to sleep at.  But on the way there, he wanted to stop by his office to grab the keys.

When we got there, he showed us around.  He then proceeded to pour out lines of cocaine on his desk and snort them in front of us.  I think he offered us some (again, my mind gets a little fuzzy here*), but we both declined.  He then dropped us off and we spent the night sharing the apartment futon, where I don’t think I got much sleep between the room spinning, and my low-level anger and resentment stewing in my mind.


In the summer after my first year of university I needed a place to live.  My father invited me to stay at his house in Toronto.  There wasn’t technically space for me (It was a two-bedroom), but since my dad was sleeping on the couch, my toddler sister shared the bed with her mother and I slept in my sister’s bed on the floor in her room.  This was intended to be a temporary stop-over to my living for the summer at his apartment (which I still wasn’t supposed to mention to my step-mother).  But my dad kept putting me off.  For one reason or another, I couldn’t move to the apartment yet, until he sorted some things out.

In the meantime, I was looking for temporary work.  After a short stint in telemarketing (ugh) I found a fairly well-paid (but gruelling) job at a meat-packing plant, but they wanted me to start on Monday.  Something I couldn’t do without a pair of steel-toed rubber boots.  They weren’t expensive (about $25) but I was strapped for cash.

In my wallet, I carried with me an American Express card that my father had given me for birthdays and emergencies.  For birthdays he would tell me how much I could charge and I’d shop for myself.  For emergencies… well, there hadn’t been any emergencies.  Except this.  This felt like an emergency.  I needed the job and it was a small amount.  I knew I’d be able to pay it back to him.

I tried to contact him, but he didn’t answer.

So I charged the card.

When I finally got through to my father he exploded.  His American Express account was in arrears.  He wasn’t supposed to be using it.   We screamed back and forth at each other over the phone.  I knew I shouldn’t have charged the card, but any feelings of remorse in that moment were superseded by a sense of fury at my father for overreacting and not being straight with me in the first place.  He was in dire straits financially, but he had pretended to me and everyone that everything was fine.  He just kept screaming and blaming me for the situation as if my $25 credit card charge was solely responsible for his world falling apart.

I told him to go fuck himself and hung up the phone.

We didn’t speak for a long while after that.  He declared bankruptcy and had to sell everything.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the apartment.


*I’m not trying to obfuscate here:  Under moments of great stress, I sometimes retreat into my head as a safety mechanism.  Because of this it’s sometimes easier to remember feelings and thoughts rather than tangible memories of actual events. 


A Card Would Be Fine

For my 16th birthday, my father told me he had cancer.

It wasn’t until several years later that I found out it wasn’t true.  He hadn’t started out with the intention to lie to my brother and I, but as usual, things got away on him.  He’d gotten pretty far behind with his child support payments and to get my mother off his back, he told her he was dying.  I think she initially met this claim with skepticism (I’m not sure of the circumstances, but he apparently had used this tactic once before when she left him), but my dad spun a very convincing yarn.  As a journalist and an avid reader he was a knowledge sponge, and even in pre-Google days he was good at absorbing facts that helped lend credence to any story.

My mother was devastated.  And she insisted he tell his children.

He hadn’t anticipated this scenario.

He had a tendency to create lies as a defence mechanism.  But as a reactionary, he often didn’t plan ahead and consider how the chain of events might play out.  So he kept putting my mother off.

deathanddyingIn an ironic twist of events, as a creative writing assignment for school that year, I was writing a play about a middle-aged woman who dies of colon cancer.  (Not actually ironic at all, as I had been suffering from abdominal pain for quite a while and held a secret belief that I was dying of just that.  This was about 5 years before my ulcerative colitis diagnosis.)  Unbeknownst to me, my mother had informed the school of my father’s condition, and when the teacher read my project, he immediately contacted my mother.  The parallel was too much for her and she demanded my father tell us about his condition at his next visit.

So he did.  And I grieved.  I had begun high school with a A- average and proceeded to slowly tank my grades.  I missed classes.  My mother gave me a copy of On Death and Dying and I worked my way through the stages.  But somewhere around acceptance, doubt started to creep in.

For one thing, he didn’t die.  Or particularly get any sicker (we didn’t see him much, so that one was harder to be sure of, but he didn’t seem any worse).  Once, as an explanation on why he was still hanging around, he sent a copy of a news article about an experimental new treatment that he claimed he was on.  But considering how few people were being given that treatment, I was skeptical of how he had managed to get on the list.  He wasn’t named in the article, so there was no way of verifying it one way or another.

And then, on a road trip with my grandmother and her friend, while she thought my brother and I were asleep in the back seat, I overheard a conversation that reaffirmed those suspicions.  She was angry at him for his manipulation.  She accused him of making the whole thing up and expressed her frustration over not being able to do anything about it.

Inside I stewed.  I was furious at her for the accusation and felt defensive of my father, but ultimately I couldn’t sustain that emotion.  Everything pointed towards her being right, and she was only saying what I had been thinking for a long time.

There was no confrontation.  There was no confession.  We just all stopped talking about his cancer, and a few years later when his book was published and he was able to pay child support again, he didn’t have any reason to use it as an excuse.  And now that he was flush with cash, birthdays and holidays were acknowledged in kind.

That was the thing about my father — when he was wealthy, we’d get envelopes of money for our birthdays and holidays.  When he was poor, we wouldn’t even hear from him until weeks after, with a phone call explaining how he’d missed it because he was in an accident, or he went temporarily blind, or some other catastrophic explanation designed to make us feel guilty for being disappointed in him.  I think it was more than just guilt that guided his behaviour.  In his mind, we only loved him for his money.  Our acceptance of that money confirmed this belief.

But really I only wanted contact.  Given the choice of guilt money or emotional blackmail, neither option held much appeal to me.

A simple card or a phone call would have been less painful.


Lies and Magical Thinking

It’s a common stereotype that young girls idolize their fathers and build them up to epic proportions.  My young mind certainly did build a mythos surrounding my dad, and in the early years it was largely positive.  My mother was superbly effective at keeping us in the dark to any conflict between her and my father – she didn’t speak ill of him around us and picked up the pieces when he broke promises or cancelled plans.  So for a time, it was easier to focus on the good things, even as the bad threatened to seep in through the cracks.

My early attempts to create an identity for him were slightly misguided.  My mother tells a story of how (pre-divorce?) I would watch him on the television as a toddler – he had a brief stint here in Ottawa as a newscaster – and try to talk to him through the screen.  I was infuriated and didn’t understand his lack of response.  A cute anecdote, I suppose, but to me it remains symbolic of the nature of our relationship as a whole:  both of us talking, neither of us communicating; separated by a virtual wall.

We were, I suppose, poor.  I was certainly aware that we did not have a lot of ‘stuff’, but my mother always ensured we had what we needed.  I know now that it was a lean time.  My mother worked with sporadic financial support from my father.  We sometimes drank powdered milk and my brother wore my hand-me-downs.  A lot of our so-called poverty was masked by my mother’s pragmatic sensibilities.  When she taught us to respect what we had and not waste things – I just thought she was strict.  When she bought fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk – I just thought she was a health nut.  She grew her own bean sprouts and cultured her own yogurt; something my childish mind could not comprehend for things you could just buy in the store.

freetobeBecause cable was not a necessity (my mother later told me that her benchmark for deciding whether something was in our budget or not was if we would die without it), our television held limited entertainment value for us besides weekend mornings.  If we craved entertainment beyond books, the record player was the way to go.  We had a few kids’ albums (I still think Free to Be You and Me is the coolest album ever!), but I developed a few favourites among her folk and pop collection.  Among them was a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album.

The image of the couple stuck with me.  And a weird parallel began to form.  The thing about someone being absent from your life for long stretches is that you find yourself filling the blanks – I didn’t have much in the way of pictures of my dad, and here were two people that bore more than a passing resemblance to my father and stepmother.  Logically I suppose that I knew that they weren’t the same people… but privately pretending they were quieted some of the anxiety I felt over his absence.

Like many part-time fathers he tried to make up for lost time, and visits to my dad’s in Toronto were designed to impress and were highlighted by expensive outings.  There were frequent trips to Canada’s Wonderland, the Toronto Zoo, Ontario Place, the Old Spaghetti Factory and the Organ Grinder Pizza Restaurant (if you were lucky enough to go there during the 70s, 80s or 90s, then you know what an amazing experience it was – in my early 20s I even insisted some friends take me there for my birthday).

My stepmother often accompanied us on these outings, but not always.  One summer our annual trip to Canada’s Wonderland involved a guest – a young woman who worked with my dad at the newspaper.  My dad picked her up on the way to the park; she spent the day with us and even ate dinner with us at the Organ Grinder.  She seemed pleasant enough, although when she got out of the car to go up to her apartment at the end of the night and I picked up her stuffed bear (that my dad had won for her at the park) to hand it to her she yelped “no that’s mine!” – assuming perhaps that I intended to keep it?  I don’t think she was accustomed to being around kids.

lennonokoWhen we got home and my stepmother asked how our day had been, I told her, including whom we had gone with.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to leave that part out.  She completely blew up at my father and they stormed upstairs, leaving my brother and I in awkward silence, with me trying to process what I’d done wrong.  The guilt was a heavy weight – I liked my stepmother and I felt devastated at being the catalyst of her hurt and anger.  I also felt a great deal of shame for being clueless and stupid about what was going on.  Even now, I cannot fathom what my father was thinking, making us complicit in his deceit of his wife.  He must have realized he’d get caught.  I suppose he justified an outing with another woman with his children present as proof of no wrongdoing.

My father lied about most things – most often to impress, sometimes to protect himself, and often just to cover up other lies.  Some lies weren’t meant to be lies – they just started out as promises and he never had the sense to back down and admit to commitments he couldn’t follow through on.  When I was 4, he promised to take me to Disney World – he never did.  I’ve never doubted that he wanted to; but by the time he had the money to, I was no longer a child and it made more sense to take my sister.  An off-handed promise to a 4-year-old might have gone forgotten after a few years.  But he didn’t let me forget.  With that initial promise, and every time I’d ask, he’d describe the trip in elaborate detail.  What the hotel would be like.  What we’d do. What rides we’d go on.  He bred a need in me where I had not previously been aware one existed.  It became an lucky pebble in my pocket – something to turn over and over and give me solace in those times when I doubted his love for me.  Whether he sensed the weight of that and it was why he couldn’t bring himself to shatter the illusion by breaking his promise, I don’t know.

As an adult, I wrote off my father’s need for deception as a simple reflection of his narcissism.  I figured he just thought he was ‘that good’ that he would never get caught.  I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this explanation, though, because so often he seemed genuinely hurt and baffled when it ended up destroying his personal relationships.  I know for a fact that he loved my stepmother, even after their separation (they never divorced, in spite of being apart for more than a decade), but that didn’t stop him from being unfaithful.  He joked once, as we sat watching tv, that he was really good at getting married, just not staying married.  I just smiled thinly and faked a chuckle, but on the inside I was stung by the callousness of the remark.

Perhaps, though, his pathological need to fudge the truth was more ingrained than even he could control.  My mentor, originally from Belfast, has some theories about lying as a form of survival.  She thinks deception is a learned trait of the Irish – when used to soften up a young woman or spin a fanciful tale; they call it blarney.  But there’s a darker side to it – a need to misdirect and never tell full truths as a matter of survival.  The Irish have deep trust issues (or at least trust of authority figures).  And when lying becomes a way of life, you soon find yourself lying about the small things as much as the big.  It becomes hard not to do it anymore.

My father’s side of the family is a few generations removed from the emerald isle, but from what little I know of them, they were a colourful bunch.  There are tales of the Belfords buying (faking?) their title, and some question of them possibly selling children on the black market.  On a lighter note, the latest generations seem to be made up of writers and storytellers, so perhaps we’ve mostly managed to steer our talents towards the creative rather than the destructive.

But while that gives an explanation of context, it doesn’t wash away all sins.  Even if I understand why the man was the way he was, or even where the behaviours came from, it doesn’t excuse it.  The lies he told to the people around him were at times unbelievably cruel – but I don’t think he ever intended them that way when he started. He would just begin with a small one and keep having to cover with new ones when cracks appeared in his story.  It was no wonder he doubted we loved the real him. He didn’t even know who the real him was – how could we possibly be expected to?


Cigarette Burns and Paper-Clip Chains

The oldest purely good memory that I have of my father is of a summer day when I was about five or so.  It was just he and I, as it was for a few years until my brother got older.  He had taken me out that day to some sort of city fair where we then stopped and got cotton candy from a vendor.  The sun was shining so bright I remember having to squint my eyes, and I don’t remember much beyond his hand holding mine and the corner of the cotton candy cart.  But then we got our picture taken together by a photographer who pressed it onto a badge for me to hang around my neck – a memento that I still have to this day.  It is faded and scuffed, but still intact; proof-positive that this day happened and was not just part of the idolatrous fantasy I concocted about my father at that age.

IMG_1312 - Version 2In some ways, it was a very sweet time for him and I, when I was five.  I had him all to myself and I enjoyed the attention from this man who, although he’d been around for the first few years of my life, I had few consistent memories of.  At five I only saw him a few times a year, and when I did there would be gifts and outings to do fun things.  He liked to show me off to his friends and take me to work.  My dad’s girlfriend (now my stepmother), was a beautiful Japanese girl of only 21 who would paint my fingernails pink, and who seemed incredibly exotic.

I remember only a few random events from those visits.  Once, after making an early morning trip to the bathroom, my dad came around the corner, completely nude, only to find me waiting for him.  I wanted breakfast.  He completely overreacted and screamed angrily at me to go back to bed, embarrassed.  (In an unfortunate coincidence, this scenario was repeated with remarkable similarity a few years later while my brother and I were in the care of a sitter – we were staying overnight while my mother was in the hospital.  The middle son, a boy of a year older than myself was in the bath.  I waited in the hall for him to be done.  When he emerged from the bath, naked and shocked to find me there, I was chastised by his mother and accused of being a pervert because I had broken some rule unfamiliar to me that required children to wait in their bedrooms until they sensed the bathroom was free.)

My father was a chain-smoker.  It was what killed him eventually, if indirectly and not as young as we imagined it would.  At five years old it was before the coughing had started much, but he certainly always had a cigarette going.  In my eyes at that age, it was just part of him, rather than being separate from his dad-ness.  One day in public I reached for his hand without looking and the lit cigarette in his fingers burned my hand.  It hurt – but it was more the shock of the unexpected pain combined with him yelling at me for not being more careful that stung.  Looking back, I’m sure his reaction was just due surprise (like the bathroom incident) and in this case, guilt over having burnt me – but the incident only ended up adding to my already tentative nature with him.  I fretted more and more about doing the wrong thing each time I saw him.

My oldest memory of him is actually from three years earlier, soon after my brother’s birth.  My parents were undergoing a separation and there was a fair bit of acrimony at the time.  In an impulsive move that I don’t think he had fully thought through, my father burst into my mother’s place and swept me away to his apartment on Walmer Road (near the famous Casa Loma in Toronto).  My memory of the incident once again presents itself in a series of vignettes:  Seeing my mother running down the stairs after my father, upset and I don’t know why.  Riding in the back of my father’s old Rolls Royce wrapped in a blanket.  Sitting the next morning by the window of his apartment, playing with a string of paperclips made into a necklace, while he called and made arrangements to return me to my mother after discovering I had peed in his bed the night before.

Thus ended the less-than-dramatic story of my kidnapping.