It’s 6:07, and summer is truly gone, because the sky as is dark as ink and the birds are silent and will remain so for a while longer.
It’s such a drastic turnaround. A couple of months ago, it rose two hours earlier; just after five o’clock. You may not even have noticed this if you’re a later sleeper. But I’m an early riser, and though I adored waking to birdsong and even an occasional squawking racket, I prefer these darker mornings.
I’ve noticed that my husband and Christian tend to sleep longer in the lingering darkness, and this means that these hours are truly mine. Not wanting to move around too much in the house and bother either of them, I stay put at the dining room table on an uncomfortable creaky chair and open up my laptop.
I’ve already told you that I struggle to stay asleep and that my nights are often interrupted by cycles of wakefulness and of spotting the lit-up time on the clock radio: 1:15…3:21…4:10…And so I’ve grown to love 5 am, because anything after five o’clock means that it’s a decent time to be up, it’s legitimately morning (or close to it), and, especially in the darker months, I have a small island of time all to myself.
I know that my son Simon, in his apartment just a few kilometers away, is up early too: usually by 5:30 on most weekday mornings. And we often connect then, each in the glow of our Macs, messaging each other. Our pre-dawn banter is such a sweet thing.
This morning, I found my father in the half-light.
In fact, he’s been gone for 27 years. Gone at sixty-one and taken by lung cancer. But he was with me in my morning solitude.
For as long as I can remember, my dad set his alarm clock at 5:30. It tormented my sisters and me because it was a mechanical (dependable!) clock that ticked so annoyingly that he eventually relegated it to the upstairs hallway of our small house (maybe my mum forced him to) where it tic-toc-ticked until 5:30 when its tinny and shrill mechanical ring invaded everyone’s sleep.
My dad was a chain smoker, and once he was up, the next sequence in his morning ritual was a shower, a shave and a gruesome period of clearing his lungs, during which he’d hack and choke and then spit up into the bathroom sink. Loudly. So loud, in fact, that there were days when I was sure he was turning his innards inside out.
What followed was always very discreet. He made his way downstairs, made himself some toast and a cup of instant coffee, took a look at the newspapers (The Montreal Star—long since defunct—and the Montreal Gazette), and sat contentedly in the kitchen. After that, he grabbed his Samsonite briefcase and his lunch and set off on his twenty-five-minute walk to the train station. I think he usually caught the 7:10 or the 7:20.
These are some of the clearest memories I have of my father because during the last eight years or so that I lived in my parents’ house, they had taken on the weight of a ritual and because inevitably, his morning habits clashed with his daughters’ need to be up and fed and out the door to go to high school and CEGEP (my daily commute to Collège André Grasset was double the distance of his).
These memories are also deeply etched because they are the set piece of our painful and confusing relationship with our father. None of us—especially as we grew into adolescence and young adulthood— ever seemed to be able to find our footing with this man that we loved and even admired in many ways, and who had such power over us and exerted such influence in the house. None of us were ever able to create a space in which we could co-exist with him without struggle.
In the light of what I know today, it’s clear that my father suffered from anxiety which manifested itself in part by obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
I also understand that he was a complex and complicated man with a good heart who battled hard with his inner demons.
Most of the story I share with my dad belongs only to him and me and my mum and sisters. But this morning, I was reminded of another part of our shared narrative.
Before dawn, as I moved quietly in the kitchen to make myself my first cup of tea, I found my father in the peacefulness of brief solitude, and I thought again that I love this time of day as much as he did. Much like he did. And I realized that I need it as much as he did.
A few years ago, I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. I answered all of the questions for the fun of it, with no expectations. So did my sons, husband, other family members and friends. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon because the results were so startling and distinct and insightful.
I came up with INFJ as a personality type (I redid the test a few years later and got the same result), which helped me to realize all kinds of things about myself, including the fact that I’m an introvert.
That single word explained so much. The butterflies in my stomach since as long as I can remember, before any kind of party or group gathering. The impulse I often feel in a crowd or large group to withdraw. The exhaustion I feel after a day of teaching, even though I love being with my students and find enormous satisfaction and joy in it. My greater and greater need to stake out pockets of time into which I can escape and be alone. My love of reading. My passion for writing.
Though I wouldn’t dare guess at the other three letters of his personality type, I think—I know—that my dad was also an introvert who needed his solitary mornings and his evenings down in the cocoon he set up for himself in his workshop/office in the basement (effectively taking over that floor); and who loved to sit and read undisturbed.
I think he suffered in the smallness of our house, in the company of his wife and three daughters. I think he would have been happiest out in nature, listening to the birds or just sitting in contemplation. That he needed to be away more. Alone more.
I sense that he may never have succeeded in articulating his malaise; that he never understood this about himself.
I found this in the dark.