I was the type of kid who stayed up past their bedtime to read books under the covers. My mom used to check in on me now and then to make sure she couldn’t see the beam of a flashlight making my Scooby Doo bed sheets glow.
My mom worked a lot when I was a child, and an older couple named Wendy and Barry often took care of me. I owe my love of words and stories to Barry, my dad. He’s not my biological father, but the man who took care of me when I was young. Barry crafted me into the storyteller I’ve become today without even knowing it.
Walks on bright summer days are some of my favourite memories of him. We would trek up and down the city’s trails for hours. He would point out hidden raspberry bushes to me and my face would be stained red by the time we got back to his house. A nearby park had a massive tree in the centre of it. The old, cracked roots climbed up from the soil and created the perfect nest to sit down with a book.
Barry told me stories of fierce dragons and mischievous cats. My favourite book was The Boy Who Cried Wolf. He read it to me so many times the hardcover was bent and stained, the spine holding on by a thread. But he kept reading it anyway because he knew I loved it so much.
Barry unexpectedly died when I was 10. My mom told me he had a stroke and was gone. I didn’t fully believe her – how could someone I had spent so much time with suddenly disappear forever? Of course I would see him again, I thought. I would see him at the grocery store over the weekend, or in line at the bank. But I never did.
At the age of 17 I was doing two things regularly: Ignoring my homework to play video games and arguing with my mother. One night I was doing both of those things. My mom came into my bedroom after we had spent the day fighting. We patched things up and somehow got to talking about Barry. We laughed together about the good memories we shared of him, but a somber air fell over the room like a thick blanket. We both missed him.
What she meant to say next was, “when Barry died.” What she said instead was, “when Barry killed himself.”
I was numb. Sure, Barry was never in a perpetual state of cheer, but nobody is. Suicide? Impossible.
But then I saw the tears in my mother’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.
And I knew it was true.
Barry had been hiding a gambling addiction throughout my childhood. He became more and more depressed as his debt increased. He injected himself with insulin and, because he wasn’t a diabetic, fell into a coma he was never going to awake from. His wife had to make the call and she withdrew treatment, or “pulled the plug.”
My mom told me Barry had written a goodbye letter to his loved ones before his death. There’s a section in it addressed to me, but I haven’t read it. I don’t know if I’m ready yet, even nearly five years after learning the truth.
This is the last thing he’ll ever be able to say to me. Once I read this letter, there is no further communication I’ll ever have with the man who wore so many hats, depending on the book he was reading to me: knight, big bad wolf, explorer, detective and most consistently, my dad. Barry made me love words and stories, and this letter is the last story he will ever tell me.
I visit the cemetery Barry is buried in a few times a year. His tombstone has his name, son, husband and father carved into it – that is his legacy, his story.
Sometimes I wonder if he would be proud of who I am today. I wonder if he’s watching me try to pursue a career as a writer, something that may not have happened without him. I wonder if he reads my stories.
I hope so.
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