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  • Her home was designed to showcase the spectacular view of the shale mountain range where Aboriginals held healing ceremonies and Pot Latches. It was known as sacred land long before houses were built. I was blessed by the comfort of friendship and the Spirits of the original inhabitants. I sat in a rocking chair by the window sharing what had transpired over the last five weeks.

    My heart ached at the memories of the long days and sleepless nights not knowing if he could hear my words, certain he could feel my presence, hopeful he could feel my love. Trying to be patient when his frightened eyes opened searching for clues, answering repetitively the tiresome questions about where mom was, and why he was here. It wasn't Dad’s fault that his memory was unable to grasp and hold on to today. Regressing a decade every week into his youth, a new awareness of my father dawned by being present as he prepared for his final journey.

    Advocating for him when nursing staff restrained him "for his own safety" they explained. I prayed they would administer enough pain medication that he would slip away. I dreamt of taking him to the bush and letting him walk a free man and die in the place he loved dearly. What a cruel twist of fate that he was now the captive not the captor. At night I lay in a cot beside his bed unable to bear the thought of him dying alone, listening intently for signs of what connected him to life and when I thought he stopped breathing I whispered 'it's okay to leave Dad, we'll be okay'.

    His arthritic hand moved rhythmically petting the imaginary dog as if he lay obediently beside him. "How did he get that name" I played along. "Remember he ate that dish of butter and Dad took him out back and shot him". I nodded, remembering our own Cindy-dog and her demise after she jumped on the counter and snuck off with his t-bone steak. In this moment he saw his sister, other days I was my mom, his mom, cousin, or a nurse.

    I marvelled at the man with sparkling eyes lost in the memory of canoe trips to Sudbury selling the pelts they’d spent the winter collecting, "only to waste it all on booze". Shedding light on the dynamics of the names familiar to me; the group of hunters, childhood friends sitting on logs, fire crackling, night settling in. His cousin had taken to feeding the small black bear that ventured closer into camp each night, training him to come closer until the bear was eating off of one of their metal plates. How the merriment turned when a claw got caught in the red and black hunting jacket, Dad's cousin gingerly slipping out of it to not provoke the bear. A tear, a solitary tear ran down his weathered cheek.

    "I had to shoot him"
    "Because he become too friendly" he replied in a whisper.

    I felt the connection he had with that bear and the pain of doing what he thought was right, to not put the bear in harm’s way when they packed up camp and less experienced men replaced them. Fervently praying to the ancestors I'd never met, his grandparents the Native woman and Scotsman who taught him how to thrive in nature, live off of the land, hunt, trap, fish, and build air tight lean-to's. "Please help my Dad on his journey" I cried, this had become too painful to watch, he needed to be with his bear, his dog Butter and the bird that sat on his head while he whistled.

    "Did you go to school today?" Instead of playing the part of teenager I tried to reason with the disease and replied "Dad I live in Thunder Bay now, I'm studying Native Canadian History at University! I got 97 on an exam." The soft teary-eyed man receded, the father I'd grown up with emerged "if you got 97 you cheated". In my youth those words had the power to hurt, now at almost 50 I understood it as his stuff, not mine.

    Despite all of my plans, the day he left I wasn't with him. With precious Victoria our seven year old granddaughter in the back seat, my husband drove us to the nearby wildlife center. She banged on the wooden railings yelling ‘wake up Mr. Bear’. The anesthetized animals were no different than Dad and the hospital he'd been caged in. I felt a sense of relief that he was now free.The wise little one offered me a sip of her water and said ‘do you think Boppa is in heaven having a tea party with God?' She was too young to understand the irony of that question. He’d only ever spoken of Jesus once many years ago as lay looking out a hospital window, not at nature but at a construction site. “I told Jesus Christ I’m not ready to go”. It was the first and last time He was ever mentioned. Dad's religion was nature, the cycles, the comfort, predictability, the lessons he drew from all of it.

    Movement outside the floor to ceiling window brought me back to the present. Shielding my eyes from the bright sun, expecting to see deer grazing in the flower garden I sat, paralyzed, staring into the deep dark familiar eyes. I’d only seen one bear out of captivity since moving to the Boreal Forest from the concrete jungle of Southern Ontario and this was no coincidence.

    Jane nudged me “go to the side window” her words hardly audible over the sobs rising from the deepest part of me where grief resides. I walked across the room, gasping for air, wanting just one more minute with him. As he lumbered across the road he turned and spoke to me in a language without words saying “I’m okay, and you will be too” then he disappeared into the bush as silently as he appeared.

    When I walk in the cold of winter, I remember Dad's loving concern over my daily treks in the forest “be careful you’ll meet up with a bear”. Sometimes I feel him guiding me, nudging me on, supporting me in a way he couldn’t when he was here physically. It was in his death that I was able to find the father I’d longed for. I've released the sadness and guilt of being too young to comprehend, and too busy with my own friends to value the lessons he tried to teach me. I pause in front of the field of birch trees, listen to the song of the wind, hear the conversation of the birds, and connect with the uneven ground beneath me. I know all is well, I can’t touch him, but I know he’s still with me.
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