I cannot believe I am going to live another fifty years without my him. What am I going to do without you, Dad?
By Roopa Cheema
I dedicate this to all the children of immigrants who have lost their fathers.
My Dad died seven months ago and I am devastated. This is my first Father’s Day without him. I am still trying to figure out what life means without him. I am forever changed by the death of my Dad. I am only now coming out of the dense fog of grief. I am. I am. I am.
My father died suddenly in his sleep; for this, I am grateful. He endured a lifetime of pain and I am so happy he went peacefully and painlessly. His death was a complete shock to me. I got the call at work. Dad died. What? DAD DIED. He’s dead? Dad is dead? And then I just collapsed to the floor.
Friday October 28th, 2016 at 2:59pm is when I found out I would never see my dad again. This is my first time writing anything other than what has been micro-blogged on Twitter about the death of my father.
I have written at length about how I feel but there has been one nagging theme I have yet to confront: The roles of colonialism, racism, and immigration in my father’s death. How does death in the diaspora impact our immigrant parents and us, the children of immigrants?
My dad was generally unwell for a long time: a life of hardship and alcoholism finally took its toll. But what about racism and colonialism? How did these factor into the death of my beloved father?
I think about the mess the British left behind in India so its citizens want/need to move away for better opportunities for their children. I think about how a racist country like Canada only gives manual labour jobs to people like my Dad. He had a good job making cars on an assembly line but that job also gave him the chronic pain with which he lived his whole life, the chronic pain that exacerbated his drinking, the chronic drinking that almost tore him and I apart.
I think about the pain in his abdomen of which he complained for the last eighteen months of his life. I think about how my sister had to advocate for him because who would take seriously a docile old brown man with an accent, even though he lived here for forty-five years? He was on a waiting list for months to see a specialist; he died on a Friday and that very next Monday the specialist called with an appointment. He doesn’t need it anymore, we said, he’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.
I grew up without grandparents: one died before I was born, two died before I was five, and the last time I saw my maternal grandmother I was twelve even though she died when I was thirty. I am thirty-seven and some of my peers have both parents and all four grandparents; I cannot fathom this notion.
These peers of mine are white and have generations of family here in Canada. This is not the case for children of immigrants; many of us grow up with little or no extended family. Death becomes a lonelier process for immigrants and their children.
I was at my Dad’s funeral and much to my surprise a huge wave of jealousy washed over me as I watched my eldest nephews, then nineteen and seventeen, walk up to the open casket. I wanted to yell, at least you had grandparents! At least you had a rehearsal for when your own parents die! So much of my shock and devastation was wrapped up in the fact that I had never lost anyone close to me: no practice, no warning, no dress rehearsal.
I was jealous of my teenaged nephews; what an unsettling feeling. Not only am I experiencing the loss of a man I love dearly (I never say “loved” because my love is very much here and now) but I am mourning the loss of connection to the homeland. My homeland. The home and land of my ancestors. My Dad is now an ancestor.
I grew up in a very white and racist town in Canada. In order to fit in, I had to push away all things Indian: a rejection of my culture, a rejection of my identity, and a rejection of my community. I stopped going to the gurdwara (Sikh temple) at a young age but my parents continued to go. In the last few months, my Dad was not feeling well enough to attend.
On the day of his funeral, two hundred of his peers and their families showed up, most of whom I had not seen since I was a child. They all remembered me and my sisters and gave us warm smiles and hugs (and also told us we had gotten fat! LOL! It’s the Indian Way, as my sisters and I like to say).
In rural Punjab, from where my parents come, the community deals with the details of the funeral. Whilst we had the service at a funeral home, we essentially turned it into a gurdwara. Some of my Dad’s closest friends took over the planning process and my sisters and I were and are eternally grateful. My uncle flew in from India and stayed for two weeks. He told us our father’s clothes could be used by poor folks back home and to go through his belongings immediately.
We were not ready but our community gently pushed us to do it; my Dad would have wanted his stuff to be of use. Now, seven months later, I am relieved it was done early in the grief process. I know, had we not been pushed, it would never have been done and we would be feeling stuck right now. I am grateful we were pushed. I am grateful for the ancient and kind ways of my community. I am grateful for the love and knowledge of my people for persisting through colonialism, racism, and linear ways of grieving. I am grateful. I am grateful. I am grateful.
I am happy to share my Dad stopped drinking and, in the end, I had a sober father. I cannot believe I am going to live another fifty years without my him. What am I going to do without you, Dad?
Author Bio: Roopa Cheema is teacher, an activist, and a sometimes writer. She holds a Master of Education in Social Justice Education from the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter.
Featured Image: Author’s photo