A Small and Beautiful Life

My uncle David –– David Wesley Marks, shown here — died on December 20, 2019. I loved him and I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in many years. He died sober and loved and loving. He died drowning in fluid from his own lungs. I loved him and I was afraid of him and I think now he lives in the stars, at peace.

In 2012 I spent a month in Iceland, during the summer, and from some combination of solitude and endless daylight and extraordinary friends and late-night dancing and alcohol and grief I experienced a kind of expansive joy I didn’t know was possible. When I returned home I had an open circle tattooed on my wrist to remind myself that this feeling existed, that it was possible, that I would fight like hell to make sure this was the kind of life I had.

David had a life that sounds mythic, in the hard way, in the telling. He was the middle child of three, and he was the most extroverted, the most charming. He started drinking before he was five, smoking before he was ten. At fifteen he was the leader of a motorcycle gang. When his father died two years later, his mother, my grandmother, had to go to the local jail to tell him. David spent years on the Downtown Eastside, surviving the pure heroin overdoses of the 1990s and occasionally taking the Greyhound to visit us in southern Alberta. He once fell off a four-storey building while running from police and landed hard on his back on the sidewalk. A friend picked him up and ran down the dark street with David on his back and both of them escaped. He did awful, terrible, violent things too, many in his youth, and I think he spent a lot of years running from that. There are more stories, most of which I’ll never be told and some of which are now forever known only to David. He saw angels and spirits and patterns that the rest of us couldn’t see and maybe in another time, another culture he would have been able to make medicine from those visions but in this time we knew him as schizophrenic. Sometimes, when I was a child, his intensity sounded a warning bell in my mind but I ignored it because he was too precious to me to risk losing.

I’ve spent the last seven years growing my life. It’s been everything I hoped for — expansive, rich, full, an ever-larger circle with more friends, more love, more experiences. My former partner and I spent years together traveling and I remember weeping on the Charles Bridge in Prague, and on the train rolling slowly into Venice, because for so long I’d believed I wasn’t worthy of such beauty, that I would never travel the way I longed to, that there was no way for me to have the life I wanted. Because that partner was sober, I didn’t drink the way I had before — like a prairie kid, fifteen drinks on a Tuesday evening just because that’s what there was to do — and four and a half years ago I stopped drinking entirely. My life was still open, still magical and large, but at some point I began thinking that a small life wouldn’t be enough for me, and that to keep this magic going I had to fight for it all the time, had to travel and spend money and meet more people and have more far-off adventures and tell more glamorous stories. That without all this I would fade back into the life I used to have, where I was always hungry for more but didn’t feel worthy of living. That without this the magic would fade and I’d be alone, again.

As an uncle David felt magical. I was a tall kid, so we were the same height, and he had a worn-in leather jacket that smelled like whiskey and cigarettes, and when he sat with me and paid attention to me I felt he loved me more than I ever had been loved before, except for by my father. Charming, the word I used above, isn’t a strong enough word for David. He was pure charisma. He could walk onto a Greyhound headed across the provinces and five minutes later everyone wanted to sit next to him, to tell him their life story, to have his attention directed to them, even for a moment. David wrote me letters full of stories he made up about a girl and her uncle traveling together in a faraway magical land and the wishes he had for my life, and when he had money he sent me porcelain masks and beautiful, tiny dolls. After my grandmother died, when I was twelve, he came to live in Calgary for a little while and I thought I could keep him safe from the terrors and the drugs and all the ghosts that followed him, but I couldn’t. One day when I was fourteen or so he called us, my dad and me, from a pay phone somewhere in the prairies, or maybe northern Ontario. He was headed east, he said, maybe to see his kids, or one of them. He couldn’t stay in one place too long, and I never saw him again.

At first it was easy for me not to drink. My former partner didn’t drink, so without me bringing home bottles of wine — a choice I regret, that I brought alcohol into their house without understanding the effect but still creating it — there was never any alcohol around. I didn’t think of myself as an alcoholic: there were plenty in my family, and I didn’t see myself reflected in them. I didn’t yet know the way addiction can travel from one substance to another. I didn’t know the hunger was waiting in me, that it would find one thing and then another until I learned to melt the ice shards in my heart.

David called once when I was at my fathers’. My father and stepfather were living in an interim home while they waited for a condo to be finished and there was a small den that I slept in for a few weeks because I’d left my mother’s home abruptly and I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was home that evening with a date, and my fathers were out, and David called and I answered and at first he was confused because I wasn’t my father but then I realized who he was and he realized who I was and for five minutes we had the most glorious conversation and he was funny and charming and everything I remembered and I was ecstatic that my favourite uncle, my favourite relative, was back in my life, but then whatever he was on kicked back in and he said a terrifying thing that literally made my heart start stuttering and I stammered a goodbye and hung up and I never spoke to him again.

Sobriety got hard for me during my third year of law school. I hated law school, hated being trapped in classes and that building and learning the laws that kept everyone I loved in boxes we had to fight so hard to escape. I think it was in third year that I began to feel addicted to the largeness of the life I’d once thought of as expansive. These are different things, and I was beginning to learn that I had been addicted to alcohol, if not to the chemicals then to the feelings of disinhibition and freedom. I hadn’t yet learned where my addiction had landed after I stopped drinking. I thought I’d just been lucky, especially in a family like mine, to quit drinking without a struggle. But that’s not how addiction works and my former partner tried to tell me and I didn’t understand. I was still partly ice and I was still hungry and I didn’t know what my hunger wanted, but now I think it was something to do with needing a bigger and bigger life, with always needing more of whatever it is I had.

Eventually David went home, to North Bay. He was still drinking, still using, but he had begun fighting hard to stop. I think he had tried many times to get sober. I like to think that when he went home the land recognized him and tried to help him, but it was a hell of a struggle.

In June of 2019 my former partner left. I didn’t see it coming and I didn’t know how to be unmarried and I’d never felt so much like drinking in my life. I’ve never really used other substances, partly because alcohol just really worked for me and partly because I’m allergic to cannabis and trying anything else just feels too risky. But I stayed sober. My friends kept me together with food and love until I could feed and love myself. I wrote the bar exams and began my articles, the year-long apprenticeship before becoming a full lawyer. I met new friends, many of them sober too. I began learning Michif. I fell in love, slowly, and began to grow a new partnership. I joined an Indigenous beading collective and last month we had a table at a solstice craft fair and I made art out of beads and strangers loved the earrings I’d made. I wore my Métis sash and my fathers came and met my beading friends and I felt that after six months of drowning I had learned to float.

David made a friend at one of the care homes he lived in, a smoking buddy, and I like to imagine him in the northern winter cold, laughing his raspy laugh and telling tall tales that were probably true. The friend’s daughter, Beth, visited one day and she and my uncle made a connection of some kind, a deep friendship. David kept fighting to stop using. Eventually he did, and he stopped smoking too. Once he’d been sober for a while he moved into Beth’s and he finally had the safe, small animal warmth of a good life. He gave his time to other people struggling with addiction and poverty, just as he had for all of his life, and he used his charisma as love instead of as a weapon. He melted the ice shards in his heart and learned to love without violence and I know he wanted to see me again but I was still too afraid. Sometimes we are ready to make amends long before those we hurt are ready to forgive, and sometimes people die before we’re ready. I’m still not quite ready to forgive David, but I’m trying. The truth is that I miss him.

I still don’t understand the whole story of my own sobriety, and I know there are struggles to come. But I’ve begun to let go of the need to see accumulation and consumption as the way to live the expansive life I want, and I’ve started finding it instead in the smallest of experiences. The way we laugh when we bead together. The unfurling of a leaf. The windstorm last night. The unexpectedness of falling in love a little more each day. My partner cooking barefoot in the kitchen. The sunrise. My father’s open heart, the melting of the ice in this family.

Last night was New Year’s Eve and my partner and I stayed home. They are learning to weave and I spent the evening knitting, alternating between a scarf for my closest friend and a blanket for the third child of friends from high school. We drank tea and listened to the wind rocketing around the house and I thought about David, how he’d fought so goddamn hard for a life like this: to be warm and safe from the storm, to be loved, to be sober. I keep coming back to this, to how miraculous it is that he finally had that life, to how miraculous a small and beautiful life is. Today is New Year’s Day and what I want for myself is to know that these small moments are enough. They have to be enough.