Something changed forever in me when my father died. I must have been at the ripest age for that sort of experience, because I’m certain the direction of my life altered forever on that day. In my late teenage years, I was asking exciting questions to the universe, such as:
‘What am I going to do with my life once I am in charge of my own destiny and not under the rules of my school and parents?’
‘How am I going to survive in this chaotic world harmoniously?’
‘How will I get money, and not have to work very hard at getting it so I can live my life and do all the other things I wanna do?’
These are the young, soul seeking questions it’s usually nice to ask to elders, and the best is when you can ask a parent what destiny they had envisioned for you to point you in the right direction. At least I could imagine that might be a nice thing to experience, to be able to speak these questions out loud and receive an honest well thought out answer. Some wisdom based on life experience. An offering to the youth of today from someone who has been there done that, and who truly knows you.
I can remember after he’d died, asking my mother and grandmother, two of my remaining elders whom I turned to for advice:
‘How can I be an activist and make positive change in the world?’
We were sitting together at the dining room table. They had sat me down for a serious discussion about what I would do now that I was out of highschool and still living off my mom and step dad in their house. They were probably getting tired of watching me squander away my youth.
‘You can’t change anything dear, so why bother trying?” They both nodded in unison, with a look of pity on both their faces.
Clearly they both thought I should get a job and move out and get married and have babies. That’s what they both did at my age so why would I want anything else?
The tears welled up in my eyes, and streamed down my face. This answer to my perhaps naive but well intentioned question was not only disappointing, but also infuriating. Im sure I stomped my feet at all their suggestions and yelled and screamed because I felt that I wasn’t being heard, and I certainly imagined that if I yelled they might suddenly listen and hear and understand the words that were coming out of my mouth. Of course they did not. What I was asking of them was not something they knew the answer to, and adults don’t like admitting when they don’t know.
I was trying to find a way to give my life meaning. Asking for direction towards meaningful and fo-filling, despite my naive existentiality. The sudden and young passing of my father had birthed a fear of mundanity, because I too could die at any moment and didn’t want to have regrets on my death bed. The elders in my life at that time may have had their own answers in achieving a meaningful existence, but they did not have my answers.
As I sulked in my basement bedroom after slamming the door, I was remembering one of my last meetings with my high school principal. Not the meeting from when I tried (and failed) to convince him to let me keep my tuque on despite the school district wide ban on hats to try to combat gangs, because clearly I was not a gangster and I was having a bad hair day. This was the meeting where I had to add one more elective to my high school schedule to graduate, and was requesting car mechanics, but he insisted I take sewing.
‘But I already know how to sew.’ Was my protest. ‘My grandmother taught me well, and I would like to learn something new and am interested in fixing my own car.’
He furrowed his eyebrows in amusement with a smirk on his fat bald head.
‘You will be the only girl in the class for mechanics and will feel more comfortable in the sewing class. You are taking the sewing class.’
He had kind eyes but there was something suspicious behind his glare. I sensed he thought I wanted to be in the class to meet the boys, not to learn mechanics. I sensed he was trying to protect me. I sensed he was imagining I would soon get married and have babies and knowing how to sew would make me a better wife and my husband would fix my car so why would I have to know how to do any of that. He did not believe I would achieve anything higher or different than the regular route he saw his female students go. Perhaps I was once heading to his imagined future for me, but now that I needed a car to drive me and my brothers to go see my father in the hospital, I had no time for that notion.
I’m not sure when it truly occurred to me that the fairy tale of a prince coming to save me, his princess, would never happen to me (nor did i wish for this to happen). But the reality that I had to be my own saviour to survive in this world and this body hit me right around the time when my father died.
He did not die instantly. He first had a stroke, which my younger brothers thought was a nap from a headache. ‘When was dinner anyways..?” I’m sure they had spent the afternoon wondering, waiting for him to wake up. His friend Marlene came by for dinner, and she was wondering why he wasn’t making the promised dinner too. She decided to go wake him up, and found him incoherent, half paralyzed and mumbling in his bed. He was then trapped for the next year in an uncooperative body and scrambled mind, until another stroke, then a brain hemorrhage would end his life on this earth.
The human brain can go four minutes without oxygen before it starts to become irreversibly damaged. For some horrible reason, his healthy, substance free lifestyle wasn’t enough to keep his blood running smoothly and a clot blocked an artery into his brain that deprived oxygen to the cells, destroying his brain. No one knows why, it can happen to anyone.
I always think back to my fathers last year, as a stroke survivor, and feel inspired to be as determined and relentless as he was. Learning to walk again even when doctors predicted he wouldn’t, struggling to communicate but only being able to speak the words: ‘no tea’. It was ‘no tea’ for everything verbally, but it was I love you my child in his eyes, and I am very proud of you in his one armed and leaning hug. At least that is what I choose to think, never having the opportunity to know for sure. There’s so much I never got the chance to ask him, and I will spend the rest of my life imagining what he thought.
Would he approve of my determination to challenge masculine culture and succeed in a male dominated trade? Because I channel his impressive strength in healing during that time when I am having a rough go at work. I hear his voice when I think I might cry:
‘Don’t cry. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.’ It makes me feel strong and tough when I need it most.
I did not go directly to working class electrician life. I took a few years to travel like a hobo via bicycle, hitch-hiking, ride shares, train hopping, cheap flight passes gifted via my step fathers’ career path, all over Canada, USA, Mexico, North Africa, Central America, Europe. I lived as cheaply as possible so I could afford to try out peripherally social activism, to research squatting, to explore a global punk culture, music, art, languages, sexuality, to thrive on dumpster diving, volunteer in radical bookstores, and to take a few semesters of general studies at community colleges. I always imagine this would have worried my father, but he would also have been delighted in the adventure. I eventually got bored of exploring. I was not finding the answers for how to make a life with meaning.
And somehow I stumbled on electricity. I did not understand it, and I really, really wanted to. I felt there must be some answers in learning about electricity because it’s so mysterious and magical. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to become an electrician.
But why am I an electrician? Why did I choose electrician? I am often asked this, for a variety of reasons, and thus have come up with a variety of answers to wash away the depth as to why.
I will tell the secretaries that ask about the childhood dollhouse I’d had, that I could actually plug the lights in and make them work. That was when I did my first splice, a girl of ten, shoving the two wires back into the small plug, and then shoving the plug into the wall and turning the house on. As a girl of ten I figured out how to fix the doll house fixture, is this not destiny?
I will tell the men who are co-workers that I chose this trade for the money, because I enjoy working with my hands and trouble-shooting circuits. I like to work and be busy I say, and that’s usually enough to satisfy them.
I will tell the employers in job interviews and clients at their houses that electricity is magical and it is an honour to know how to harness and guide it safely. I will tell them I was disappointed with the mysterious holes still in our knowledge of what electricity really is, but will brag that I have the equivalent of a degree in electricity, having completed my full journey to full red seal electrician.
What I will neglect to tell any of these people is that I remember the sound of my fathers comforting voice explaining to me as a small child that when I dropped the penny into the small area between the nightlite and the wall, forcing a short circuit between the two prongs, the flash that happened that blew a black mark up the wall and blew the circuit breaker did not (surprisingly) have me punished but had him glad I was okay and that the circuit blew. He snuggled me back to comfort into my bed, and explained to me that I could have started a fire, or I could have been electrocuted, and both of these things hurt very much. And that’s the first time I remember wetting my thirst for knowledge about electricity.
I will not tell them I remember my father making me do jumping jacks to remember multiplication of numbers. I trust he would believe in my ability to understand math, science, and logic in ways that society would have me believe I am a stupid woman and will never understand, and even if I do, I shouldn’t, and I should pretend I don’t get it, because that’s what good women do.
What is real is that he is no longer here to argue what he meant, or what he thinks, and thus I believe he is proud of me, and believes in me, and knows as well as I do that I am a very strong and capable woman. He very well could have been a misogynist, but it doesn’t matter now. I have somehow found a life I am proud of, and find meaning in. I get to help people by using my hard earned and practiced skills as a trades person, and feel valued as a member of society. I work full time as a city electrician, and find a meaningful existence in a regular paycheck, to my anti-capitalist surprise. I am not an activist, except in the sense that I challenge gender stereotypes every day, and that feels like enough. I am even having thoughts like maybe I will get married and have a baby, and the idea sounds nice not terrifying.
I enjoy the feeling of contributing to a rat race city, and laughing at the politics. I am excited for the future my career choice has opened up for me, and I am thankful to my Dad, for being there with me through it all, in spirit. He was there for me in my head to encourage me on, when others would not or didn’t know how. Thank you William John Lichti for all that you are, I think about you more than you ever would have imagined, and will love you always. It was not because of nor despite my father that I decided to become an electrician, but rather with the help of his comforting existence. In the memory of when he lived I find a love of life, that compels me to challenge myself to push my limits, and I am pleased to honour him every time I remember him.