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February 11, 2022

I brought my father back to life to tell him I loved him

Yes, during my 2-kilometre walk this morning, I brought my father back to life to tell him that I loved him. Did I ever tell him? As I followed my route by memory, he appeared before me, crossing the little kitchen in Caplan. His huge body, light as a feather, moved between us like a ghost of a forgotten man. He hardly ever spoke to my mother, who herself ignored him most of the time. I remember the awful sadness that took over our young lives and those of the two adults we called Mom and Dad. What was their purpose in our lives other than to feed us? Like the chickens with their grain each morning, the cow with its hay and the dog with its stew bone?

It often made me sad when my father snapped open a small can of sardines in the evening. Mom would inevitably make a remark, censuring him for always being famished or too fat. “As big as a mountain,” she would say to neighbour Berthelot the next day. Dad would then get the big red box of Christie’s soda biscuits from the cupboard, open the glass door to the sideboard and take out Grandma’s pink plate. He always had a snack in the evening, as if a ravenous grief was devouring him inside. With his thick fingers, Dad would spread two small headless and drained sardines on each cracker. His big paw would scoop up the cargo and deliver it into his wide-open mouth. I could hear the "crunch crunch" of the sardines being quickly dispatched. Did I ever tell him that I loved him?

The little one would often climb onto Dad as he lay on the couch. Sitting astride his wide belly, she’d clutch the fabric of his shirt on either side and kick his flesh, already bruised by life, with her heels. “Yee-ha!” my brother would exclaim as he played at trying to lasso my sister’s little head or Dad’s big swollen foot. This made Mom have a fit, ordering me to put an end to the circus.

Did I ever tell him that I loved him? With my head under the pillow, I wept when I heard my mother pouring her anger into his poor heart at night. I cried some more each time when he left on Monday morning with his travelling suitcase. I knew it would be five long days before I’d see him again. Did I ever tell him that I loved him?

The evening before each departure, mom would iron Dad’s shirts and his two pairs of trousers. I could hear her grumbling about how fat he was. The poor woman had to put in twice the effort to lay out an entire leg on the ironing board. Then there was the crotch, the pockets and the enormous waistline to do. She would fume as she laid a linen handkerchief down each ample pant leg to steam the fabric smooth.

- “Quite the adventure,” Mrs. Berthelot would say on the day he left. And Mom would empty her bag full of sorrows in front of this interlocutor, whose own husband was as thin as a broomstick and a teacher at the little village school. Did I ever tell him that I loved him?

What did I know about love then? What do I know today? Just as I used to cry in secret when Dad was sad, I have sobbed silently all my life when forced to face my own deep loneliness.

As a young girl, I suspected that the most basic thing was missing between my parents. I looked at our neighbours and knew that there was no affection between the man and wife of our house. No little kisses behind the ear that Mr. Berthelot would offer his Laurette. The complicit smiles between spouses and frequent weekends to the cottage without the children. Even my mister-know-it-all brother mentioned to Grandpa Frédéric that sadness returned to our home with Dad’s arrival.

Without prompting her, Mom told us pretty much the same thing as Grandpa: You’ll learn all about the basics of life at school. Did she even know what the basics were?

Then one day, Dad came back from a trip and called me COCO.

It was a tiny word as warm as a cat’s ears. When I heard it for the first time, my heart trembled with happiness. It was as if the cat had reached out and offered its paw to me. For a whole week, that tiny word reminded me of Dad’s face; his eyes lighting a sparkle in my own. Did I ever tell him I loved him?

Then one day we left the rusty orange cliffs of my childhood. And the same sadness moved with us to Mont-Joli, then Sainte-Foy near Quebec City, to the suburbs of Montreal and finally to Sainte-Adèle in the Laurentians, where Dad passed away. And I too became an adult who never received gentle kisses behind the ear.

I learned at my mom’s funeral of her ill-fated love affair with a Protestant, whom the Catholic religion at the time had forbidden her to marry. And my poor dad, who had been madly in love with her, could never win her heart. Did I ever tell him that I loved him?

We can sometimes sacrifice our whole life in the hopes of a few hugs, imagining the other’s love as big as a mountain. In the end, it is we who turn into a mountain that can never hold all the love our starved hearts yearn for.

I never really learned to say, “I love you.” All my life, these absent, mute words only made my sadness heavier. And today, perhaps because of Valentine's Day, the idea came to me to bring my father back to life to tell him that I loved him.

I love you, dearest Dad. You were my first love and perhaps (though I hope not) you may also be my last. From your lofty home above, please send me an angel who will bring me a handsome Valentine whom I will love as much as I loved you.

Your darling Coco.