via My Dom
My family moved quite a bit before I was born, and up until I was in grade nine. As evidence, I have to tell you that I was born in Calgary, in 1953, the fourth born of six kids. The first was born in 1947 or 48, in Langley, BC, where my mom was teaching school in her first teaching job. Unfortunately, he died early, at about one year old, from some infectious disease that pretty much drove my parents away from BC, back to Saskatchewan, where my mom had originated.
When you’re really young, newly married, and really bad stuff happens, I guess going back home to be near family is pretty normal. Mom and Dad both got work in Saskatchewan, and so my two eldest living siblings were born there – in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where Judith was born in 1951 and Elaine in 1950. By the time I was born my parents had moved to Calgary, closer to my father’s family and relatives.
In 1953 Dad was working as a salesman for an Oil Company Supplier, on the road five days a week, more or less. My very earliest memories are of sitting on my father’s shoulders watching the Calgary Stampede parade, with my sisters sitting on the roadside curb. What sticks out in my mind today about those memories is that I was pretty excited to see the parade and that my dad got me a cowboy hat. That’s pretty much it for my memories of Calgary, even though we stuck around long enough for my youngest sister, Katherine, to come along in 1956. In the year follower her birth, my dad got a job in Powell River, at the Powell River Paper Plant and Mill. My younger brother Douglas was born in Powell River in 1957.
My mom started teaching again in Powell River, temporarily as a substitute and part-time teacher. In order for her to get full-time work, she needed to move to a larger school district, Vancouver, BC where she then worked for most of the next 30 years as a secondary school teacher. She had a temporary position at UBC as an Associate Professor during the late 1960’s while she obtained her Master’s Degree in Arts, in Sociology. In 1971 she turned full time to the Vancouver School Board, just before I entered UBC myself as an undergraduate student.
So in about 1958, with a new baby in tow, we moved to Richmond, BC. Mom had her new job as a teacher with the Vancouver School Board, and Dad moved to a new job in sales with a company called Plant Maintenance Equipment, located in Kitsilano in Vancouver, BC as well.
Although I don’t really have too many memories of Powell River, where Douglas was born, I do vaguely remember taking swimming lessons at the beach and earning a Certificate for completing the course. It was the summer I turned five, and my mom was kept pretty busy chasing after five small children and living in a tiny cottage. I still remember vividly the old Rambler Stationwagon my dad drove the year we moved and sitting around in the living room waiting for my parents to return from Vancouver, where they had gone looking for a new house.
We were all so excited to move to our new home. When I first saw it, I was astonished that we would be living in a brand new house with a private yard. It seemed wonderful, and it even had its own private ditch in front of the house.
Across the street was still in the process of being developed, and there was mostly vacant land between Francis Road and the Vancouver International Airport that we could see out our front winder, even though it was miles away. The most impressive thing, however, for me, was a giant pile of dirt in the lot directly across the street. It’s hard to imagine now that we all got so excited moving again, but clearly, we were pretty good at it by then, and we all looked forward to the new rather backward at the past.
As a family we would only move once more, and that was to a home in North Vancouver, where I stayed until leaving to attend UBC, and my parents stayed until my Dad passed away, and Mom moved on to an apartment, leaving the old house to my wife and me, with our raft of kids.
My wife of thirty-four years and I are on the verge of divorce. In hindsight, it was always pretty inevitable since we always wanted completely different things from life, and what we wanted depended on our partner being someone completely different than who they are, especially in term of the fundamentals of marriage itself.
It took a very special kind of blindness to last this long, a willingness to overlook a fundamental flaw by pretending that it wasn’t there, but a flaw so deep that once exposed it can never be overlooked again, covered over, repaired or forgiven.
This huge rift between us goes right back to our earliest days, the days when I was married to someone else and she became the mother of my son, born as a result of a brief but torrid relationship which had resulted in his birth, less than 10 months after we first met.
Nobody would have have thought that such a start propitious. Having a child out of wedlock wasn’t something that either of us had imagined when we engaged in the obviously dangerous tryst. But for me it turned out to be less of a moral challenge than it is to her, to this day. She has never forgiven us for committing seriously immoral conduct, or herself, for that matter, for having slept with a married man.
It makes no difference to her that I was upfront from the beginning. There was no hidden marriage, or implied statements to the effect that I was single, or almost single. When she and I met, I had no intention of splitting up with my first wife, nor she with me.
We had an open marriage by mutual choice, arrived at by long discourse and mutual interest in exploring beyond the boundaries of marriage. My former wife was well aware that I had a number of outside female companions, several of whom we even shared. The fact is that we did split up within five years, but our open marriage was not the primary source of our going our separate ways. There were other, far more serious fault lines between us, not the least of which is that we both carried within us the net effects of physical, sexual and psychological abuse as children, most of which we skillfully concealed from each other, but which were the real cause of our breakup.
Our lovers had nothing to do with it. Well, maybe they did, and maybe my current wife had something to do with it. Having a baby with another woman put unbelievable pressure on my first marriage, even though I had concealed the existence of the child from my ex. Maybe this supposedly idyllic and idealistic “open” marriage had more than a little wrong with it. If everything was so open and above board I would not have hidden such an important thing as having fathered a child with another woman from my ex wife.
We’d actually discussed what we would do if this happened, although we’d both committed to using protection. We’d mutually agreed that we’d handle it together, and make room in our lives for any such child, and the mother as well. We’d extend our marriage to include them, for the sake of the child as much as for our own sake, as well.
The truth is that we had both failed to disclose important things from each other along the way, and the baby was simply the last and most significant of those lies between us.
So when my wife and I moved in together, after my ex-wife and I split up, there was a lot of things we should have discussed before getting pregnant with our second child together. By the time it came around to deciding to get married it was already too late to work out how we were to deal with our mutual expectations of marriage, and what it means exactly to get married.
Instead we got married with a simple agreement that since it was unlikely that I would ever be sexually monogamous we would leave the “faithful” out of the marriage vows, but leave in the marriage vows, promises to stay the course, be loyal to each other’s best interests, to look out for the other person’s growth and do anything we could do to be the best partner possible, but not including fidelity.
She believes that I took advantage of her naivete, or alternatively, she really didn’t understand what it mean to live with an unrepentant polygamous man, within vows that didn’t even suggest sexual fidelity or exclusivity.
She says that she didn’t really believe me when I said that I was always likely to have friends and lovers outside of marriage, but that I wouldn’t let those relationships interfere with my relationship with her, or with my responsibilities to my kids.
In hindsight, I should never have moved in with her after the end of my first marriage, and most certainly shouldn’t have fathered two more children with her.
If she exercised willful blindness about my nature, and my apparent incapacity to live within a conventional marriage, then I also was willfully blind. I never really understood her feelings on the subject, which she never articulated in so many words, but has demonstrated without a doubt at times over the last thirty four years.
She didn’t ask, mostly, and I didn’t say. On the few occasions when she did ask about outside activities or relationships, I repeated what we had agreed to at the beginning of our marriage. We had agreed that we wouldn’t talk about it, I’d keep it away from my home, and I wouldn’t ever be intimate with a friend or close acquaintance of hers. She said that she didn’t really want to know, and I took her at her word.
I knew that our agreement was tenuous, at best, because over the years I came to understand that the only way she could deal with it was to pretend that it did’t exist, as if I really didn’t have any outside relationships, nor would I want to have any. She told herself that my refusal to promise to be faithful, or to discuss any variation on the original stance, was a cover-up, but not for my being unfaithful, but as a face saving device so that I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that I was a changed man.
She knew that my self-image always contained my sense of being independent and free to engage with anyone as a free human being. She knew that I believed that I could be faithful my promises to her, without having to accept a value system in which I simply don’t believe.
There were moments over the years when this fault line caused difficulties in our relationship, when she was sure that I was involved with someone. But since we had no dialogue about it that actually illuminated anything, she stuffed her feelings down and held back from expressing her sense of shame and outrage at my values and my inherent sensuality.
One result was the effective end of our intimate sexual relationship more than a decade ago. Although it was never raised by either of us, my unwillingness to commit to sexual fidelity seemingly made it impossible for her to fully participate in sexual congress. She submitted to sex rather than made love, a fact that made it less and less attractive to me over the years, and also made it less and less possible, due to my declining sexual performance generally.
Finally, a year or so ago, it all came out into the light. Somewhere along the way I had been exposed to a STD, discovered in a routine battery of blood work, which required me to inform any sexual partners so that they could be tested to protect themselves.
The first person I told was my wife, who went immediately into a slow burn which quickly turned into an inferno.
She said that she wanted a divorce. And sooner rather than later. Some days I think that she’s changed her mind because we get along so well, and do so many activities together. And generally we do get along really well, and cooperate in our lives together. But when I start to think that things maybe will heal over, it explodes out all over again.
From her perspective the only reason we’re not separated right now is that my health and economic situation is so bad that I wouldn’t be able to function on my own. Up until now it has been true, and without something changing it might be true for years.
My income is from CPP and OAP, for a total of $1380 a month, which when combined with her income, allows us to live a reasonable life. On my own it would be pretty much impossible, and the situation wouldn’t be much better on her own either.
But things aren’t actually getting better between us, and whatever store of goodwill and affection sustained us for so many years, despite the underlying fault line, is getting pretty thin.
I remember saying a long time ago to a friend that “when one person in a relationship has contempt for the other, the marriage is over, completely over, and no amount of effort can bring back the respect and trust once it is gone.” This has never been so true, and when I hear the scorn and disrespect in my wife’s voice, I’m scorned right to the core.
I know. I should have known better. Even then, I should have done better. Although, for the life of me, I have no idea how I could have done better, except by changing myself and my values fundamentally to suit her. Or alternative, persuaded her to adopt my views on life.
However, it is now far too late, and in her heart she really can’t forgive me for “sleeping around” on her for all those years. Even if I were to change and be willing to promise to change now, it would not make any difference to her.
She is convinced that I have betrayed her and that I continue to betray her, not for my acts of betrayal, but because I am unrepentant and refuse to apologize for being exactly who I have always said I am, and done exactly as I always said I would.
It is irrelevant to her feelings today that she knew exactly who I was, and what I believed from the first night we met. I am who I am, and to her, that’s disgusting.
Not much of a foundation for mutual respect.
Figuring out where I want to go from here, what I want to do and even who I want to be is far more complicated that I ever imagined it to be. Especially now that I’m sixty-five years old.
I’ll admit to having experienced this state of fugue from time to time in my past. When I attended university at UBC in Vancouver starting in 1971, I enrolled in a Music Education program, thinking that I might like to become a high school music teacher. I had been singing in choirs and playing musical instruments since junior high school, and I fancied that I might actually be a good enough musician that I could make a living both as a musician and as a teacher of music.
Teaching and music both run in my family.
My mom and her father were both teachers, and they both had successful careers, she largely as an English teaching with the Vancouver School Board for many years and later a Lecturer in Sociology in the Faculty of Education at UBC, and he as an itinerant teacher and school administrator across much of Canada’s north country, ending up as the Principal of Thunder Bay College, and later staying on as the first President of Lakehead University, both in Thunder Bay.
My very earliest memories were of listening to my mom sing lullabies when tucking me in as a young child at night, and of sitting on the piano bench next to my grandfather singing a Swedish Stilla natt, heliga natt! (Silent Night, Holy Night) along with him on one of his magical Christmas visits to our home.
Stilla natt, heliga natt!
Allt är tyst. Klart och glatt
Skiner stjärnan på stallets strå
Och de korade helgon två,
Som kring Guds Son hålla vakt
Som kring Guds Son hålla vakt.
My childhood home was often filled with music, as all of my siblings and I learned to sing early, and often. Other wonderful memories of childhood include singing around the many campfires of family camping trips, to fantastic destinations like the Cariboo Trail, the Calgary Stampede, and the family homestead in Comstock, Saskatchewan where my grandfather and my mom both had their roots.
So becoming a music teacher seemed like a good idea at the time. At UBC, in the Faculty of Music, I joined the University Singers, while also singing with the BC Boy’s Choir, which toured Europe one summer. I also took several music education courses, and the standard required Humanities English 100 and a history course, French Canadian History, a survey course.
And, of course, I joined the UBYSSEY, the student newspaper, as a greenhorn reporter and photographer. During that year I wrote reviews of classical concerts and attended many operatic and symphonic events as a writer with Press Pass. I shot news photographs and learned to work the dark room, and it’s many secrets.
There were a couple of things that went wrong in that first year, that threw my plan to become a teacher into the garbage bin. Around Christmas I was involved in an electrical fire in my mother’s car, which destroyed the engine, and more importantly, led to serious smoke damage to my throat, vocal chords and quite possibly to my lungs, which may very well partially account for the fact that I now suffer from serious COPD, and forced me to withdraw from the University Singers, and stop singing with the Boys Choir.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by chronic obstruction of lung airflow that interferes with normal breathing and is not fully reversible. The more familiar terms ‘chronic bronchitis’ and ’emphysema’ are no longer used, but are now included within the COPD diagnosis. WHO | COPD: Definition http://www.who.int/respiratory/copd/definition/en/
The second, and much more important than the temporary loss of my voice was my failure to thrive in my education course work. One of my professors told me point blank that he would be willing to give me a passing grade, only if I agreed to drop out of the Faculty of Education, and never take another education course. For whatever reason, true or not, he had reached a conclusion about my unsuitability to becoming a teacher. His comments to me were couched as gently as he could, but he stated that he believed that I didn’t belong in a classroom as a teacher because I was emotionally wrong for the job. He felt that my unlimited energy and wild enthusiasm, as well as mercurial temper and periods of depression made me highly unsuitable as a trustee for young children, or even teenagers.
I was stuck down, destroyed in my ambition to be a teacher, and took to heart this professor’s judgment. The loss of my voice seemed trivial against the far greater loss of a potential career I’d always thought I’d follow. So at the end of my first year at university I completed my arts courses, English and French Canadian History which were all I could take with me into the Faculty of Arts in the fall of the next year.
As it turned out, I ended up with an English degree since it was the only second year course I could take, and I was invited to participate in the Honours program in English literature by the Faculty Adviser supervising my first year English course. In a way, the English Department chose me, rather than me choosing them. My choice in an academic degree was large a default decision, rather than a purposeful one. It didn’t seem too off base, after all I am the son of an English teacher, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that English was a pretty easy alternative to my preferred choice of music.
The choice of an academic career by default, is in many way, symptomatic of the choices I’ve made in the rest of my life. As someone with a supposedly high intelligence quotient, the ability to read copiously as a result of reading extremely fast, and with the ability to do well in any scholarly pursuit, if I put my mind and heart into it, made school seem like a natural path, even if I actually was pretty much indifferent to the content of my education. I love reading, but not literature per se. I’d have been just as happy to have done my degree in Economic or History, or for that matter, Astrophysics.
If I have any dominant characteristic, common to me as a child, an adolescent, an adult and now, as a senior, it is encyclopedic curiosity. I don’t claim to know much about anything in particular, but I’m interested in almost everything under the sun. I continue to be thrilled to discover new things, new inventions, new way of thinking and doing.
This characteristic has many good aspects to it, and a couple not so great. It means that I have had, and continue to have, some difficult in choosing what to do with my time. Everything looks interesting, and generally I’ve pretty much always been able to handle the challenges thrown up by any of my endeavors, except in one, simple, but fundamental way. It’s tough to choose, and even tougher to stay the course. My threshold of boredom is really low, and my curiosity and boredom with everyday duties have made me singularly less than as financially successful as I should have been, if only I could have stuck to one thing, and truly made it my own. With my raw abilities I should have mounted to the top of whatever career I choose, instead of ending up mediocre in all of them, having failed to really commit to any of them.
Suburban Richmond, British Columbia, in 1960 is just a few steps from the great marsh separating a community of newly built split level houses, and row upon row of almost identical buildings, built all at once, in a great big hurry, from the roaring Gulf of Georgia.
In the spring of that year, the harbour seals, giving birth to their pups, awakened my neighbourhood every night with barking, giving way only to the Canada Geese when they flew in from points far south in the United States a little later in the season.
The tidal marsh was both endlessly attractive and terrifying, luring young children into danger, trapping a child ever so often and drowning them in a tidal surge. It was home to the muskrat, ducks, rats, frogs and many other denizens of the marsh. In was only occasionally tidal, only the biggest tides of the spring would flood the marsh right up to the dyke. The rest of the year the marshes were mostly drier, kept damp by the water table, only inches below the surface.
Picture me, very small, grinning widely.
Five or six years old, wearing shorts and a checkered t-shirt, slightly muddy. Short buzzsaw haircut, in the style of the times, the late 1950’s.
No sensible fears nor optimistic hopes, living in the ever-present now of childhood. Smiling so widely for no particular reason except that I was unbelievably happy, just to be alive, and in front of a camera. Caught in a moment of stillness, between running around like mad on the back lawn, riding my bicycle up and down the street in front of the house, teasing my sister and making her laugh or cry, or fighting the desire to go down the street and play in the marshes beyond the dyke.
This is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, that seems to stretch out endlessly in front of me. The distance I could travel was between the front porch and the little ditch under the driveway bridge, the little ditch that in my imagination stretched to Kingdom Come, without end, Amen. An endless little ditch where fleets of dinky toy trucks had sunk beneath the waves and paper ships had sailed into the endless time after lunch.
Crossing the ditch was a mighty step, for beyond it was the forbidden land, where giant cars raced up and down the street, just excited by the possibility that a small happy lad would step out in front of them, and be gobbled up in an instant. Don’t cross the ditch, boy, I was promised, it would be awful and bad things would happen, for sure.
Despite the wide grin on my face, and being as happy as I have ever been in my life, what that picture from my early childhood reminds me most of all was to be happy within a circle, outside of which I was to be afraid, very afraid. And, as things turned out in the end, with good reason.
I was the middle kid, between two older sisters, one and two years older, and a younger sister and brother. We were all born within a ten-year span, basically one every two years, like a biological assembly line punching out kids, all basically the same, except in two flavours, boys and girls. Our mother, a blousy blond, was the fifties pretty, not like the sticks they call girls later in the 1960’s, in the days of Twiggy and the mod bodies of the Twist generation. My dad, a salesman, worked almost every night selling mysterious stuff to janitors. Bottles of cleaners and giant floor polishing machines were his products, but to me, they seemed magical.
Sometimes he would take me along with him on an appointment where he would show off one of the floor machines, giant polishing machines. And once in a while, he’d let me sit on one of the polishers, as he used it to polish a floor. What a ride it was, and I’d feel pretty special, just for being there. Once in a while, my dad was a great guy and really knew how to make me feel pretty special.
This is me, and this was my home growing up until I was much older, fourteen. Idyllic in appearance, and placid on the surface, childhood was anything but placid underneath that skin. But there were many good days, and good times, to throw away all of the memories just because most of the time that I lived there I lived in fear, would be wrong, although that’s what my mind tried to do. Make me forget.
In trying to make sense of my life after growing up, it’s helpful to understand who I started out to be, and what influences changed me into the man I eventually became.
Sometimes I feel as if I have fallen down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe, one in which I’m no longer a person. The world has also changed, seemingly irretrievably, into a place without any kind of safety, security, and surety.
Mum used to complain to me, from time to time, when she was retired from teaching, that she felt invisible, of no consequence, and therefore, of no value to anyone, including to herself. I remember telling her that, of course, she had meaning and value, at least to her children, and that we value her for her wisdom and accumulated life experience. I believe now that my comments were, at best, well-meaning but false.
Feelings are not facts, although they weigh us down as if they are real. I am going to be celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday in less than a month. Supposedly this means that I should be enjoying the opportunity to retire from active working life, and into a pleasant meander down the road of a new journey, not so bound up in ambition or goals.
Instead, I head into retirement with serious complications of diabetes and COPD, chronically exhausted, in constant arthritic and neuropathic pain. My professional life is in disgrace, and my finances are completely destroyed. My marriage is a shambles, a mere shadow of meaning and purpose I believed it to be. Whatever self-esteem I once enjoyed has been systematically eroded to the point where I have become self-effacing and ashamed.
Accomplishments once achieved with pride, are now rued as pointless, as they were not sustained, nor followed up with long-term success. Professional competence and pride in my knowledge and skills are now the pathetic memories of a fallen champion.
I have crashed and burned before, and arose from the ashes to take on new challenges and build a life again. I’m told by professionals that I need to let go of the past, forget my shortcomings, and learn to live with my current life and health circumstances. In short, I need to refocus on a new future. Build again a life worth living, a life into which joy and laughter can once again be a part.
There is still much of value in my life, and turning to those people who continue to befriend me and support me is a part of that future. Gratitude for what I have now will be a good start.
Still, it is difficult to look around me and see a landscape filled with characters I don’t recognize and don’t think I really want to get to know. What would be even more helpful would be if I could find a mirror that shows me the man I once thought I was. The mirrors in Wonderland show me a person I scarcely recognize, and who I really don’t want to be.