The Hermit Poet

November 9, 2006

Considering the Path Ahead

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:25 pm

I’ve found it difficult lately to post. Partly out of a certain lethargy that creeps in when facing another week of job and PhD applications, and partly out of recent changes that are happening in my family.

My father is now in the hospital in Penticton indefinitely. He was recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), but has been suffering from its effects for the past 8 months. If you’re not familiar with ALS, it’s a vicious disease that shuts down nerves and muscles throughout the body, eventually stopping the lungs and heart. The last thing to go is the brain — your mental capacity is retained through the whole process. In a sense, you become a prisoner in a body that no longer functions. Typically most ALS patients live 3-5 years from the time of their diagnosis, but in my father’s case the symptoms are advancing far faster than normal. Most likely he will be gone in a year or less, perhaps as quickly as a few weeks or a month.

As a family, we’re coping reasonably well. It’s hard on all of us, but in a way we’ve been prepared for a while. My father suffers a variety of other health problems (Addison’s disease, diabetes, low blood pressure, and obesity) — he has always told us that he would probably die early. And, in a sense this awareness of his mortality has haunted me from the time of his father’s death over ten years ago. When I talked to him then, I recall feeling strongly that one day I would be the one dealing with my father’s death. Thankfully we’ve had a great relationship and friendship through the years — and this is something that I am grateful for. As you might have noticed, my father was often the first to comment on my posts, occasionally to call something into question or force me to reconsider, but usually to let me know that he liked what he was reading. I miss these comments already — being hospital-bound, my father no longer has access to the internet and his hand mobility is fading. For the time being, I make tripsback to Penticton (a 5 hour drive) and visit him in the hospital on weekends. He can still speak, but is noticeably slower and more slurred.

At times like this, I am grateful that I come from a strong religious and spiritual background. I am thankful for the peace I find in a belief in the eternal nature of the family and that relationships forged here can continue on in the hereafter. I will be sad to see him go, but know that he will not be far away.

He is lucky, or perhaps better said, blessed to be in Penticton – his hometown. He still has many friends in the area and they have been there at every step. Their support means a great deal to the family and especially to my father. And he is not facing these trials alone — he found out recently that his best friend Wilson is also dying, suffering from an inoperable cancer of the esophaugus. The two of them have had a number of conversations now and I think that it has been good for both of them. When the path ahead appears dark, it is good to have a friend by your side.

How am I doing? There’s a part of me that has felt this day coming for a long time. Arguably almost 70% or more of my poetry is in some way a pre-emptive elegy for my father. I have dealing with the threat of his passing for years. Still, when it suddenly looms so close, it seems surreal and I alternate between calm acceptance and a deep sadness. Over the years my father and I have become close friends. He has been a faithful reader and supporter of my poetry. He has given me sound advice and the occasional kick in the pants to get me going. I hear from many people that he has always bragged about me and been proud of what I am doing as a writer and a teacher. And so now, as we face this impending separation, it becomes more and more apparent just how much his presence has meant to me.

Looking over my poetry, I realize as well that my father has become more than just my father — he has become in some sense a representation of myself. A shadow sometimes. An avatar to explore my world from a distance. A third person to examine myself. Even after he has passed on, he will remain close to me in my writing and teaching — whatever I write and wherever I go. His presence in my writing keeps me honest, even as I change and grow and move on to wherever this poetry and this life carry me.

In a world where so many writers and artists have struggled with their fathers, I am grateful that I have had a father who was open-minded enough to accept and encourage my love of language and poetry. In fact, when I announced that I was leaving my career as a computer games programmer, my father’s first comment was “Welcome back to the fold!”

For now we are learning to laugh and enjoy the time we have. Yes, there will be sorrow, but there should also be room for happiness — for the blessing of this life together and the times which we can continue to carry with us, as well as the hope of the life in the world beyond. There are good memories still to be made. Regardless of where the road leads, there is no need to walk it alone.

5 Responses to “Considering the Path Ahead”

  1. Peter P Says:

    Wow. So sorry to hear about your father’s illness. It’s wonderful to hear about his ongoing presence in your writing.

  2. Robert Says:

    Thanks for sharing all this, Niel. I know it has been a tough but necessary call to share about my own grieving process on my site. And I know that a father can have a profound influence on and bond with a son, one that carries into poetry as in life. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Hang in there.

  3. Pat Ryan Says:

    To Christine and family,
    I want you all to know how much your father has meant to many of us in the genealogy community. Speaking as someone who was quite close to him in Regina I think you, his family, should know how proud he is of ALL of you. I heard many times about that beautiful woman who agreed to marry him in Hawaii and that he was so shocked and nervous the day of the wedding that he gave his sisters name in error when asked for the name of his mother! I was priveledged to hear stories about his children, and as parents, we shared stories about trials and tribulations as well as celebratory news of our kids. He was so excited about his new grandchild. He was, and is, so very proud of his family.

    Ken’s sense of humour is an acquired taste. The lucky ones learned to understand and appreciate it, and I will always think of him and his words of wisdom hidden within his humour. And his proddings (in other words he not only kicked his son in the pants, but periodically shared that with his friends as well – when we needed it) … his proddings always spurred me on to rethink, re-evaluate, and often re-work what I was doing. It takes a good friend to offer good advice, and it takes a good friend to accept that offer.

    I have stayed in close contact with Ken since he left Regina, and he has continued to help, and offer guidance … and always – in every email up to the last time we chatted on the 22nd of Oct – his sense of humour remained strong. I am including a quote here with sincere hopes he would not object. “No progress on recovery but am adjusting to strangers undressing me and bathing me–homecare workers.I am not a stripper, its just my central nervous system cannot communicate with my muscles. Imagine a beluga whale or manitee marooned on your sofa or recliner. Thats me. Friends built me a wheel chair ramp– a skate board ramp for geriatrics. When the paint dries on deck I hope to get out more. And cub scouts are lining up to race their pine wood derby cars. One of my friends wanted to bank the corners, while another wants hay bales along the rails. Some younger ones were complaing my luge track is not challenging enough. Strangers would be more respectful- and dull.” That last line is Ken and his sense of humour. That is also how I will always remember *him* – respectful and never dull.

    Please say “Hello” to him for me and tell him “Thank You”. God bless you all.


  4. Jee Leong Says:

    Dear Neil,
    I’m very sorry to hear about your father’s condition, and the pain that must cause him and the family. Your good relationship with him must be a source of comfort to you, and to him, now. Take care.

    Jee Leong

  5. Lee H. Says:

    What a heartfelt post this is, Neil. Your father sounds like a remarkable man. You all have my prayers and best wishes.

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