I don’t write recaps, reflections, or predictions. At least not normally. (Mind you, my book was all three of those things, but I digress)
But then I got this picture. An exquisite photo from my daughter Jennifer for Christmas. On its face, it is the quintessential father/daughter capture: Pure love and emotion. Perfectly freeze-framed at her wedding by a wonderful photographer and friend.
The picture has stayed deep in my brain. That front part, ticking and twitching at three in the morning.
I’ve been wondering why.
I realized it embodied my entire experience of 2021. My face is one of pure joy for sure. But it is reflecting the stress of a year the likes of which I have never experienced in all of my 61 years.
Cynthia’s cancer and surgeries; a partnership gone south; a job that remained elusively out of reach from its original and obvious potential; of three vacations canceled; a teenager “plane landing” with an engine or two on fire – pre-uni.
A world gone quite mad.
It is a face of profound paradox. I hated 2021.
But my beautiful eldest (by 8 minutes over her twin) married an awesome human named Eli. I watched her dance the most difficult and magical role – the stuff of 8-year-old ballerinas everywhere – in Swan Lake. I saw her twin sister Alexandra dance – the other dream role – Sugar Plum Fairy in their final performance of Nutcracker. My son and his incredible wife made the huge effort to come west and see us in a rare and scary window of life as a 4th-year Neurology resident – waiting to return on call – with both of them hopping back day the day after Christmas to provide essential services inside a COVID-ravaged Ontario health and education systems. And Alicia! That apple does not fall far from the proverbial tree? She successfully navigated all of the challenges that first-year university throws at you with a side helping of pandemic and COVID thrown hard at her!
Yet my face tells the story of too many brushes with challenges not of my making and stresses beyond my playbook. I saw the public health system so very much up close. I drove to my wife’s post-surgery through the gauntlet of protestors moronically shouting against the essence of shared responsibility and the collective good.
I was appalled.
But in these daily visits, I saw the extraordinary nurses, doctors, and caregivers providing daily, subtle, and extraordinary care within a system so clearly on razors’ edge. I daily held hands with and looked into the eyes of a woman who was faced with the staggering unknown of surgeries and percentages. Doubt and hope were her constant companions. Wine gums and Earl Grey Latte’s her salve. Through her, I understood that what ails us today is often the unearthing of sedimentary layers from decades past.
The picture showed the face of a man balancing love and worry on a fulcrum and for too long.
Looking again, I see the face of relief meeting worry. The joy that my eldest could – finally – fulfill her dream. Worry that disease, pain, and suffering had become a visitor in our sanctuary – creating possibilities ahead in life never before imagined.
Shock and a profound disappointment as we witnessed our world peeling back the veneer of civility to expose selfishness, fear, and tribalism. Realizing it had been there as smoldering coals – waiting for the fan of the unrelenting technology of the gods.
I felt the weight of a year that so many more had suffered so much more. Unheard and unspeakable tragedies of families and ways of life shredded.
I looked again and realized I think I was holding on for dear life.
And perhaps I am. Perhaps not.
On this New Year’s Eve, I do like I always do. I remind myself of the sheer blessedness of my family’s good fortune. And am reminded that the only response to something like 2021 is to do what all good soldiers do: Reduce the surface area, take cover, find the high ground and then – when the time is right – come out swinging.
In a year I will look back on that beautiful black and white and recognize it for what it is: A joyful moment, forever captured with the love of a father so clearly behind closed and tear-filled eyes.