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After Mom died, Dad was lost – and I was worried

BEN CLARKSON/The Globe and Mail

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He said the bathroom door swung too closely to the toilet. His solution was simple – take it off the hinges.

"Dad, how am I supposed to go to the bathroom here?"

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I was incredulous. And so was he.

"Ahhhh, what a wimp. I'll put a nail up and you can pull the curtain across the door."

I looked around the apartment. Wall-to-wall driftwood. Pieces hung from the ceiling on fishing wire like creepy mobiles. Dozens of dusty pieces littered the kitchen table, the shelves and filing cabinets. Random rugs blazed a trail across the carpet. Things were piled on top of things.

I swallowed my suggestions for improvement.

A single mattress inexplicably occupied the living-room floor. I glanced at the bedroom. It was stuffed floor-to-ceiling with blue Rubbermaid bins and boxes labelled with coloured markers: Tan's bedroom stuff, Bri's Xmas, Kitchen, etc.

"Um, where can I sleep?"

"There's an extra single mattress down the hall. Let's grab it."

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We left his apartment by way of the front door (still intact), and made our way down the artless hall. Dad had become the caretaker of this apartment building for youth in transition. His job was to keep an eye out, to be a resource. I thought he was perfect for the job: good with a toolbox, quick on his feet, friendly and funny.

He'd call me every once in a while with a story.

"Brielle, you won't believe it. I got a call from the cops this morning and they asked me if I knew where my truck was. I walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain. My truck was gone!"

Seems one of the residents was unimpressed with Dad's caretaking skills and had stolen his rusty pickup. But he only made it a block – Dad's budget didn't allow for fancy things like decent brakes. The kid plowed into a car at the first stoplight he came to, and the cops got him. Dad guffawed over the phone, but I could tell he was shaken up.

I didn't love that he was living in Whalley, a seedy sub-district of Surrey, B.C. He and Mom had brought us up in a Vancouver suburb. After Mom died and the debt overwhelmed, we had to sell the little brown one-storey with evergreens all around it. Dad found a rental in Surrey. It had a big backyard, perfect for storing the driftwood collection he'd amassed in recent years.

With an empty trailer behind him and a black shepherd dog beside him, he'd sneak down to the banks of the Fraser, that seething brown artery that winds through the Lower Mainland. They'd occasionally come home stinking: Olly loved rolling in dead fish.

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One summer, Dad did what any man would do with a big backyard, a dead wife and a crazy amount of driftwood: He built a bocce course. "The boys" would come over, beers in hand, to bank coloured balls off the twisting path.

Then Dad took the caretaker job. His apartment sat on top of a safe-injection site. Across the parking lot was a greasy chicken joint. I would take the Sky Train out to visit him. It was about a 10-minute walk from the station to his place. I wondered whether to greet the prostitutes I met under orange street lamps while waiting for the light to change.

I worried. Then I moved to Seoul. From the bowtie-wearing kindergarteners I taught to the booze-infused nightlife I took in, there were plenty of distractions. I worried less.

Dad's job eventually suffered a natural death. He found a basement suite to live in. But work was hard to come by and the debt was growing again. Over the phone, I asked him, "Dad, how are you paying for things?"

I didn't want to play financial manager, or wife, but I felt like someone had to ask the uncomfortable question to the eternal optimist. The boys had mostly stopped coming around. And my brother preferred to politely mind his own business.

Soon Dad drifted again, further this time. He had a buddy living two ferry rides north of Vancouver in Powell River. Small-town life had always appealed to him, he said. He moved.

If you ask him how life is now, he drops the f-bomb.

"How are ya, Dad?"

"Faaaaantastic. I had just a fantastic day today. Olly and I perused the dog park. I'm in love again, and I'm a hero at the local pool hall."

Dad falls in love every other week. But "the broke bachelor" is a tough sell. He calls to relate a funny anecdote about the latest breakup. We laugh about it.

Bi-monthly dating dramas aside, Dad sounds lighter these days. His partial bankruptcy claim was finally processed, and he's debt-free again for the first time in years. He called recently during a beach walk with Olly. I could picture him bouncing along on the balls of his feet, Olly up ahead, searching for dead fish.

"I decided to set five more goals this year, Brielle, only 10 times as big!"

"Yeah? Cool. What are they?"

"I don't know yet. Ease up, eh?" he said with a laugh. "Okay, I'll tell ya one of them."

He paused for effect.

"I'm going to learn to play the harmonica."

Recently, Dad cleared what was left of his driftwood from a friend's backyard. He called the experience cathartic. In Powell River, he's got friends, dates and an ocean. He's found part-time work as a mover, a vending-machine stocker and a landscaper. But it's still touch and go.

I sent him a few job links the other day. And then, I sent him a YouTube video: how to play the harmonica.

He called me to say he watched it. "How was it?" I asked.


Brielle Morgan lives in Ottawa.

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