More than twenty thousand people have died from a drug overdose in Canada over the past five years. My dad was one of them.
My dad was fun. He taught me how to make things. He taught me how to make a cherry pie from scratch, using cherries from the tree outside of his house. We made a go-kart, a jewelry box for my grandma, a board game and sprawling Lego cities. We made our own root beer floats at McDonald’s. We grew pumpkins in a dirt patch he cut out of the grass behind his apartment, and he taught me about compost. We raked leaves in the fall and by spring we had dirt for the garden.
My dad was cool. He had a waterbed and he let me roll his cigarettes. We played Go Fish and told each other to “Go fish in a mud puddle!” and “Go fish in a dumpster!” He had two black and white cats named Puss and Boots. When they died he got two new cats and named them Puss and Boots, too.
One day we were sitting on a bench when a pigeon flew over us and smashed into a store window behind us. It was wounded and disoriented. It couldn’t fly. We took it to a park nearby and watched it for a while, tried to encourage it to take off, but it was obviously suffering. My dad brought it into an alley and killed it. When he emerged around the corner, he had tears on his cheeks.
When I was a teenager, learning about love, he told me “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours.” He showed me how to pick a bike lock. The swimsuit calendar in his bathroom made me uncomfortable. He didn’t remember things I told him and asked me questions that were awkward to answer.
As I got older, the positive, tangible things he was passing on to me started to become eclipsed by harder lessons. I was learning that I couldn’t rely on him to show up when he said he would, and that he wasn’t paying child support. I learned that it wasn’t safe to get in a car with him even when he said he hadn’t been drinking, because more often than not he was lying.
I stopped visiting him at home. We would meet for dinner instead, but he would still drink too much. I switched our dinner dates to breakfasts but he’d be drunk when he arrived at 9 AM. He started to show up drunk to important events and would hit on my friends. I asked him if he would stop drinking around me and he said no.
I bought a baby blue 1978 Honda Civic and my dad taught me how to drive it even though he’d had his license revoked. I saved money for a year and went to Europe when I was eighteen. When I got back he told me that while I was away he had driven my little car and crashed it. I was learning that for my dad, alcohol came first. I had trouble figuring out how to communicate with him, so I stopped. He died three months after I had decided, for the first time, not to call him on Father’s Day.
Our relationship left me with polarizing memories that can either bring a smile to my face or overwhelm me with sadness. Losing him to a drug overdose has made me feel like the positive memories are in jeopardy and I have to protect them somehow. Because his death is entrenched in stigma that perpetuates the idea that someone who uses drugs is less worthy of life, and therefore less worthy of remembering, I have to stand up for him and explain that he was more than his drug use. I have to justify his goodness and continually go out on a limb for a drug user instead of simply mourning the loss of my father. My dad was unique. A cat-lover, a mechanic, a carpenter, a goof, a friend, a caretaker, an alcoholic, and also a drug user.
In British Columbia, where I live, there was a 75 percent increase in overdose deaths between 2019 and 2020. In 2021, nearly six people are dying per day in the province, leaving gaping holes in communities. Families are experiencing overwhelming loss that is mostly going unacknowledged. Many of these families feel shame related to this loss, and are unable to talk about it, which makes it even harder to process.
After my dad’s death I began to make photographs about the loss I was experiencing. It was a way for me to reconnect with him and remember the things I loved about him, instead of just remembering his faults. Creating art about our relationship was a huge part of my grieving process and sharing the photographs helped me feel less alone.
In 2020, I began to photograph other people in BC who have lost a family member to overdose, or who care and advocate for people who use drugs. I wanted to give them the opportunity to share their stories and to be witnessed in their grief.