I detest platitudes — like learning to live in the moment — yet here I am working on that very thing in my Boston marathon training.
I put off writing this because I thought these 50 Thoughts would be bright, humorous dispatches — as if colonoscopies and forgetting words for groceries when you’re making a grocery list is downright hysterical.
Talking about depression has become all the rage since Stephane Richer admitted to trying to kill himself four days after winning a Stanley Cup, while driving his Porsche 911; since speedster Clara Hughes confessed that the black dogs have hounded her through six Olympic medals.
I don’t know if this makes me feel better. You’d think folks with Stanley Cups, Porsches and Olympic medals would have it all going on. And I don’t have any of those things.
I did have a father who wanted to end his life, whoa, starting at the age of 50! I don’t worry about a genetic inheritance. I can put that in a box. He was a modern progressive farmer. His brain had been polluted by agricultural chemicals (gee thanks, Big Ag!) and also dented by a rock to the head. When I was researching an eight-part series for The Toronto Star, “Crisis on the Farm,” I spoke to Carlton University researcher Shawn Hayley, who studies the links between Parkinson’s and pesticides. He thought the bang on the head (causing inflammation) was like “throwing a match” into the chemicals that had pooled in my father’s brain tissue, starting “a forest fire” in his head. The researcher actually used that poetic language (thanks, literature!).
My dad saw the black clouds of confusion closing in. I came home from high school to hear the tearful ultimatums he gave to my mom: either take him to hospital to fix his confusion or take him to the cemetery. The doctors tried and could not fix his Parkinson’s dementia. We hid the hunting rifle, the keys to vehicles, kept an eye on him. He once managed to go for a walk across Highway 400, though the police apprehended him and returned him home, “safe,” ironic quotation marks fully intended.
I was 15 when dad started going off the rails. Being the kind of kid who wrote poetry, I perhaps sympathized too intensely with his drama. I went through high school asking myself this question each and every day: What makes life worth living? And every day, I would have to come up with an answer, for both dad and myself.
I really struggled with answers for dad. His autopsy report, which I bizarrely keep on my writing desk, says he lived to 70, though it was in a thick mental fog for the last 15. Still, he lived to meet all six of his grandchildren, and he delighted in them and I think they felt that he, confused and unhappy as he was, gave them a lot of positive love.
As for me, I always came up with the same answer. Growing up gay and denying it to myself for many years (cause it was considered vile and despicable, like it’s changed all that much for kids) didn’t make high school or university life particularly peachy. So my answer was always rooted in future. Things would get better in the future. I believed in the future. And for too much of my life, I have lived not so much in the now, as for the future.
But at 50, the future’s not such a great place to live. If there’s ever a time for an occupy-the-present movement, it’s now.
Last night, I was at my alma mater, University of Toronto, doing speed work around King’s College Circle, pounding out 10 kilometres of laps, passing undergraduates spilling out of evening classes, thrilling in being in the best shape of my life (and likely better shape that 95 percent of those 20-somethings).
I was not thinking about Boston or the blessed end of the workout or even the next lap, but exhilarating in the speed and gruesome effort, living in the wondrous moment of each stride. And I was strong. And I was happy.