by Brianne Benness
My great-grandfather Benness lived to be 102 years old, his was the first hundredth birthday party that I ever attended. When he came home from the Great War he started working in the mines in Cobalt and retired at 65 with a pension. He wanted his kids to grow up to have lives that were as secure, long and healthy as his own.
His son — my papa — joined the air force during the second world war. When Papa came home safely from Europe, that secure and healthy life seemed possible. The government offered to pay for my papa’s education and Papa was thrilled. He wanted to be a lawyer but that had been out of reach for a miner’s son. When he came home to Cobalt and told his dad the news, my great-grandfather frowned. “Are you ashamed of this life?” he asked, “what are you expecting to find out there?”
So my Papa moved to Sudbury for the nickel mines and stayed for the lumber camps. That’s where he met my nana, one summer he fell in love with the boss’ youngest daughter. They married and had children, and he always felt just a little bit out of place with his brothers-in-law. Mac was a dentist, and Guy was an attorney, and Bill was going to be a lumber baron. Papa just knew that if he’d gone to law school then he would really deserve this life. Then he would be the one paying for his son — my dad — to go to boarding school instead of accepting charity from his father-in-law.
My dad hated boarding school. He was this big grizzly bear with a tenderness that he couldn’t hide beneath his six foot four inch frame and overgrown mutton chops. He was dyslexic — though it was undiagnosed at the time — and he struggled, unsupported, in an all-male institution that did not tolerate weakness. He passed grade nine French when the teacher offered to give him a C if he promised never to take French again.
He went to the national championships with Ridley’s rowing team, and this got him into Western despite his grades. He spent two years there without any particular direction, and he was working in the lumber camps near Sudbury when Papa was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dad dropped out of Western to stay in Sudbury with his family. When he went to the hospital to tell his dad the news, my papa frowned. “What are you doing with your life,” he asked, “why are you wasting the opportunities I’ve given you?”
So Dad enrolled in pre-law at Laurentian to become the lawyer that Papa always wished he’d been. Dad was just 23 when his father died. He graduated and he travelled and he moved to Toronto to work as a parole officer while he studied for the LSATs. He found that he empathized with those young offenders much more than he expected. He remembered what it felt like to be young and frustrated and he wanted to work with these kids before they needed a parole officer.
In his early thirties Dad gave up Papa’s dream and started a Ph. D. program at McMaster. That’s where he met my mom, somebody from their church set them up because they were both getting their Ph.D.s in psychology. They got married and had a daughter — me — and quickly learned that a shared interest in psychology was not a strong enough foundation for a marriage.
He built a practice working with kids with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, he welcomed every little shit into his office because he recognized himself in each of them. The summer after I graduated from high school, he fell down the stairs while sleepwalking and hit his head pretty hard. He started to forget things, to mix up his words. He stopped working because he couldn’t keep his patients straight and he stopped driving because he crashed the car into our neighbours’ porch.
Because they cut OAC out of the curriculum and because my birthday is on December 29, I was 16 when I applied to university. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, so I chose a small liberal arts college in Iowa where my other grandfather had gone, so that I could become his legacy for a while.
During my second year in university, my mom was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma - skin cancer. I got blackout drunk two, maybe three nights each week and went home over Thanksgiving to drive her to chemo and radiation therapy.
After she went into remission, I got a summer internship with a NASA research program. I was working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where the atom bomb was developed when my dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t want to turn back into Brianne-who-gets-blackout-drunk-three-nights-a-week, so I started looking for a therapist and I broke up with my terrible boyfriend and I applied to grad school.
After I moved to Michigan, I tried to drive to Kitchener every month to see my dad. He quickly became aphasic, so his words were jumbled and he spoke with a stutter when he spoke at all.
I would drive to Kitchener and take him mini golfing, and then I would drive back to Ann Arbor and stay up all night trying to catch up on the work that I’d missed. And then I would drive to Kitchener and take him on our own architectural walking tour of Stratford while the swans were still out. And then I would drive back to Ann Arbor, and get so drunk on Halloween that my boyfriend stayed up most of the night to monitor my breathing because he was so worried about me. And then we drove to Kitchener together and took Dad to the last game of the Kitchener Rangers’ best season.
I called him every week with these little prepared monologues about my program and my life. He always asked — or tried to ask — how my mom was doing, because he couldn’t seem to remember that she’d kicked that cancer. But mostly he would listen and try to respond appropriately and I would talk and try to distract him from his frustration with his aphasia.
On the day before my midterm review, I called him and my monologue turned into a rant about architecture and studio culture and my professors. I had applied to architecture school because I loved how buildings made communities that made cities. And now sometimes I hated architecture school because it seemed like there was no room for humanity in design at all.
When I told my dad that I didn’t want to pursue licensure as an architect, I could hear him frowning as he struggled through the haze of aphasia. “Do you like what you’re doing with your life?” he asked, “are you happy?”