At 4:48am on the 4th of August I received a text message from my mom that simply said:
Neil is gone, Yannick
(That is my full first name, in case that wasn’t obvious).
At the time I was in Whistler, British Columbia, on a work retreat. I work for a remote company and twice a year we all get together. This was my first retreat (therefore the first time I would meet the majority of my 50-ish co-workers) and I traveled to Whistler knowing that my 58-year-old step-dad would die while I was there.
I “knew” it but he’d thus far always battled and conquered the cancer that ultimately took his life. So even though I knew deep down that this was his last stand, I guess I wanted to believe that there would be some sort of miracle.
After all, he had defied the odds time and time again. But this time was different. And the reason that I knew it is depressing in and of itself.
Last October I traveled to Quebec to see my father’s final days. He, too, died of cancer. At the age of 58. Seriously, what the hell are the odds of that? We’d had an up and down relationship but I got the chance to say goodbye. He died peacefully in his home, and I saw those last few days.
The way my mom described Neil’s condition was exactly how my father had been. I hate that I’ve watched the life slowly slip out of a person, and I hate even more that my mom had to experience this with the man she loved.
The man who had been in our lives since I was 10 years old.
So in the wee hours of Thursday morning, smack dab in the middle of a busy week with almost 50 co-workers, I was struck with the news that the man I’d considered my dad was no longer on this Earth. That the world would never again get to enjoy his goodness. That he would never meet his youngest grandson, who has his pépére’s last name as his middle name.
NOTE: Pépére is a French-Canadian word for grandfather.
I laid in bed for a few minutes, in shock, considering whether there was any chance I would be able to go back to sleep. There wasn’t. So I got dressed and headed into the mountain trails of Whistler. The sun wasn’t even really up and I had no particular destination. I just knew I wanted to be in nature.
Though I had moments where I allowed the emotions to wash over me, I stubbornly powered through it and tried to remain stoic. For whom, I’m not sure. I decided not to tell my wife right away because I didn’t want her waking to that news before the sun had even come up.
This was completely abnormal because my wife is my best friend. She’s the person who knows me the best, the person with whom I share my innermost feelings and someone who loved Neil dearly.
A couple of hours later, she called me, crying uncontrollably. This had hit her very hard. She feels things more viscerally than anyone I know. And again, I felt like I had to be the calm one. To be strong and to power through. We spoke for 12 minutes and then I headed back to where I was staying.
For the next few days I debated whether I would share the death of my dad with any of my co-workers (aside from my immediate supervisor). Though there were a few people that I was closer to, in the end I didn’t tell anyone. I suffered in silence, once again powering through my emotions. I tried to remain distracted.
Now here we are. I got home yesterday and I haven’t really taken the time to really process and feel this loss. Today I allowed myself to feel a bit more, and as I thought about Neil I realized that he was around 32 years old when he and my mom started dating. It doesn’t even seem possible because in my memories, he was old. Like, a grown up.
And I barely feel like a grown-up, even though I’m married and have 3 children.
I’m currently 4 years older than he was when he began seeing a woman who had a 10-year-old child. He’d never had children before and all of a sudden here I was, a decade old and probably (definitely) a bit of a pain in the ass. That couldn’t have been an easy thing to dive into, but he did it. And he never looked back.
I remember liking Neil very early on. What was there not to like? He was a good, kind, man with a heart of gold. And I remember he drove a funny looking car (VW Quantum, if I recall correctly — there’s a picture of me in front of it somewhere). It was so uniquely him.
Sure, it was strange to be in a small town in 1990 with separated parents and my mom dating someone new.
Pretty much all my other friends had the traditional 2-parent households. Here I was living with my mom and my grandfather (at one point HIS mother lived with us). And now a new father figure had entered my life.
Several years later (I don’t remember exactly how old I was), my mother and I moved in with Neil. Imagine, going from living in his bachelor pad to welcoming a woman and her teenager. Until I moved out at the age of 18 I don’t think he ever really got mad at me. Maybe once, and I’m sure I deserved it.
He treated me just like I was his own son, and then his large family also embraced my mom and me. It was a little overwhelming, and looking back I can honestly say I probably wasn’t appreciative and thankful enough. I took a lot of it for granted.
So during those high school years we grew closer and he would teach me anything that I wanted to know. I’ve never been a typical cars/tools/outdoorsy/manual labor kind of guy so it was a little hard for us to bond, I think. I wish I could go back and tell teenage me to just take it all in. Do it for the sake of being together and letting him teach me about things that interested him. Things he knew, and that he wanted to share with me.
After I moved out, I saw less and less of my parents. I’d travel home for holidays and they’d come to see me in Halifax, but overall I was stretching my wings and learning to fly. Once again, not fully appreciating how lucky I was to have loving and supportive parents.
Honestly, I probably couldn’t have been any more different from Neil in terms of how I spent my 20s. Piercings, funky hair, taking my sweet ol’ time to get my university degree and then moving to California to marry the love of my life. And Neil was at my wedding :)
My wife and I had a baby shortly thereafter and in June of 2013 my mom and Neil came out to visit. It was clear that he took his job of pépére very seriously, as you can see in the cover photo above. It was awesome to see him bond with my young son. At that time, Neil was fighting cancer and was winning.
Fast-forward to April of 2015 and we all traveled back to Canada because we feared that the cancer was on the verge of defeating him. It was a great trip, and once again Neil got to enjoy his pépére role. This was the first time our then-4-year-old had really seen the snow and boy was pépére excited to show him. They even went walking on the frozen bay in front of the house.
Then 2016 came along and started out alright, but quickly deteriorated. It seemed like Neil was always in the hospital and that his quality of life was really starting to suffer. Though we’d asked many times in the past couple of years whether we should be expecting the very worst, this time it just felt like the time was fast approaching.
And now, here we are. It doesn’t even feel real. Given that my mom has a very large support system at home and we’ve got our own family crises here in California, I’ve not gone back to my hometown. Part of me wishes I could have, but in the end I decided that I’d stay here where I’m needed and that instead we would bring my mom out to California for Christmas, to be with our family and my wife’s family.
I still haven’t fully worked through this complex set of emotions, and I’m sure it will take a long time to really accept that Neil is gone forever.
But what remains is the knowledge that while he was here, he made the world a better place and touched many people with his kindness and positive spirit.
His family will continue to be my family.
And our 4-month-old has as his middle name, the last name of the pépére he’ll never meet. Though I didn’t share his last name, his memory lives on in our youngest boy, who will hear stories and see pictures of the amazing man from whom he gained his middle name.
Rest in peace, dad. You’ve earned it.