*Trigger warning: death, drugs, home invasion.
On the night of my father’s death, I actually had plans to visit him. If these plans were not changed, I may have been the one to discover his passing and in doing so, prevent his neighbour from breaking in and robbing his lifeless corpse.
In the last few months of life, my father’s health had been quite bad. A plethora of respiratory afflictions had resulted in numerous hospitalisations, cumulating in a session of assisted breathing in an intensive care unit. However, each time he would bounce back, recovering just enough to return to his old habits. His daily routine involved smoking marijuana constantly throughout the day, with no breaks.
I had recently purchased a vaporiser that I planned on giving to him as a gift. I knew that he would never quit, and by that stage his addictions no longer bothered me. I figured that the vaporiser would at least give his lungs some respite. They work by heating up the herb rather than igniting it. The user breathes in the ‘vapour’ rather than the smoke, thus it is a ‘healthier’ way of getting high.
Earlier that day I had placed it in the boot of my car with the plan of dropping it off at his house unannounced after work. I prayed that wouldn’t be the day that an overzealous police officer decided to pull me over for a random search of my car. I would have had a difficult time explaining that the vaporiser was a surprise gift for my terminally ill father who, despite his illness, won’t stop smoking so much weed. Thankfully I was spared that interaction.
That night, on the way to my father’s, I received a call from a family member who needed a lift. I was more than happy to oblige. Despite the desire to help my father, visiting him was far from pleasant. I was used to his stoned drawl as well as the memory loss. But what I couldn’t stand was the smell. His various mental afflictions, combined with the years of drug usage a living condition that was straight out of a ‘Hoarders’ show. Full to the brink with junk and refuse, the house had an overpowering smell to it. Mould, pet waste and bong water combined to create a putrid aroma that was, on occasion, literally vomit inducing.
It was quite late after I had dropped them off, so rather than popping in to see my dad, I decided to call instead to arrange a time in the near future, but the phone just rang out. Thinking nothing of it, I returned home for the night.
Early the next morning, I was awoken with a hysterical call from one of his neighbours. Jackie was probably his closest friend and definitely his best customer. They would spend countless days inebriating themselves and making art together. Unlike the rest of his clientele, I liked her. She never treated me badly, and even when I was quite young, I never felt in danger around her.
Through tears over the phone, she told me the news of Dad’s passing. It turned out that their mutual neighbour Grant was the one to discover his body. Late the previous night he had walked over to my father’s house looking to get high. Grant was relentless in his pursuit of drugs. The time of day, or the presence of small children never even caused him to falter. I remember one time when I was younger, being woken at 3am by him knocking on my window asking to be let inside, only to have Dad chase him away with a crowbar that he kept beside his bed ‘in case he needed to bop someone on the head’.
So that night, when Grant couldn’t rouse Dad to open the door, he decided to break in. Upon finding his body, he proceeded to take everything of value including the contents of his wallet, some jewellery and of course, all the drugs that he could find. Only once he was happy with his bounty, did he proceed to call an ambulance and tell Jackie about my father’s fate.
I never liked Grant. As a child, his volatility scared me. He always seemed on the verge of psychosis and I was continuously on edge around him, doing everything I could in order not to tip him over the edge. For years, I would hear Dad complain about how Grant had ‘ripped him off’ in some way or another. To me, Grant was the epitome of depravity, a harrowing example of the destructive nature of addiction combined with untreated mental illness.
Had I have visited my dad that night, I may have been the one to discover his body and subsequently had to deal with Grant pestering me to sell some of my now inherited drugs. I have no doubt in my mind that Grant’s first thoughts upon hearing the news would have been ‘now where am I going to get it from?’. I am not sure how I would have handled that situation, but given my feelings when I went to Dad’s house the next day, I am glad that the night turned out as it did.
In the morning, I arrived and began talking with Jackie outside of Dad’s house. During our conversation, Grant came over to us, and began to offer (what he thought to be appropriate) condolences. Telling me about his Biblical vision in which my father ascended to heaven surrounded by a legion of ‘white robed soldier angels’. Now I know that my dad dealt in a lot of different drugs, but I never knew him to deal LSD.
I wasn’t impressed, and given the fact that this man had just robbed my father, I was inclined to become violent. Luckily for everyone, my wife was there to calm me down. It just wasn’t worth it.
I am glad that I did not witness his passing. For long time smokers like my father, they don’t bother doing an autopsy or any form of investigation as to the cause of death. Unless there is a stab wound or other obvious signs of foul play, there is just no reason. So I can’t confirm the exact medical condition that ended his life, but based on his history, it wouldn’t be hard to guess.
Most likely it was complications resulting from a long time battle with emphysema. Not a fun way to go. Apparently towards the end, it can feel like drowning as fluid slowly fills the lungs, each breath leading to more and more panic as you struggle to take a full breath.
Had I have stuck to my original plan to drop off the vaporiser that night, I may have been a witness to that horror. That being said, his facial expression was very calm. So perhaps he merely passed in his sleep. Regardless, I truly hope that he did not suffer.
Thinking back, it seems blatantly obvious that he was close to death, but at the time, I just didn’t see it. I couldn’t fathom the possibility. It is said that when the first ‘close’ person to you dies, you begin to truly understand the concept of mortality. Until that point, death seems unreal, something that impacts other people, and until you lose someone close to you, you can’t possibly hope to understand.
This was true for me at least, Dad’s passing hit me like nothing else. Given our past, I was left with a confusing mix of emotions. Anger for what he had done, love for what we shared and confusion about what it all meant. For a few years, I was lost inside myself. Yes, I still ‘functioned’, but I felt quite one dimensional. It wasn’t until I finished writing the story of my childhood that I truly began to heal.
The Flannery O’Connor quote “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” couldn’t be more true. There is a real risk of framing all my future events against the story of my father and my childhood with him. Writing enables me to lay my emotions out on the page, and dissect the mess that was my childhood. It helps me to come to terms with my present reality, rather than reliving my past.
I still struggle with a plethora of mental health afflictions and hang-ups that are a direct result of my past. However, I have found writing to be the best form of therapy. The page listens. The page does not judge. Writing enables me to let go of my past and start to move on.
"Under the Influence is the story of my childhood.
It provides an insight into the reality of being the son of an addict, paranoid schizophrenic, chronic hoarder and drug dealer.
For as long as I knew him, my dad dealt. Every day, a procession of desperate, malnourished and volatile addicts would visit our house looking to score. From a child’s perspective, they seemed to have only one goal - acquiring their next high. Growing up in this environment had a profound impact on my life and world view.
I never felt safe."