Goodbye, Paul

July 3, 2018

IMG_1449         My father died on Monday night. He had the temerity, or perhaps I should say the grace, to die on my birthday.

I write ‘grace” because one of my friends joked last night that perhaps his death could be looked at as a birthday present to me: he was such a terrible father that in dying he gave me the gift of not having to put up with him anymore.

But I cannot look at his death that way. He was not a great father, nor was he even a good father, but he had his good points. Generally over the years and through about 25 years of therapy I have been able to get past the bad points and to enjoy Paul for who he was. (He told me when I was nine, when he got out of prison, that, “You have to call me Paul now.”) He was a crazy iconoclast, self-centred and self-destructive, incapable of raising or supporting kids or even of living in a house, and creative, smart, talented, good-looking, funny, curious and full of inspiration.

The last time I saw him, May 5-6, 2018, I said goodbye, and it is a day that brings warm feelings to my heart. Paul, who over the past few years had spent his winters at my sister’s house in Mexico, had, at the end of April, flown through Vancouver on his way to Ottawa. A brother who lives in Vancouver (my father has 12 children, depending on whom you count) called and told me that Paul was not well.

“You should see him and say goodbye,” suggested my brother, “because he’s frail and I don’t think he’s going to last much longer.”

I took a day off from my current academic commitments. I explained the whole thing to my spouse, who gave me her blessing.  Then I got a lift with my sister and her boyfriend in his pickup truck, to Paul’s farm near Plantagenet, Ontario, where my father has mostly lived for more than 45 years. I had lived on that farm too, for summers when I was a child, and visited him there since.

A working dairy farm for over a century, the farm has been a sort of hippie commune for close to half a century since. Once Paul and his merry women and men had festooned the big old barn and log cabin and other wooden buildings with turrets and towers and balconies and bridges, with banners and huge communal kitchens and teepees and tents, in which the smoked copious marijuana and made candles and made love and celebrated Renaissance Faires, craft sales, free food and free love. Now all the turrets are gone and the other day someone who knew Paul well said, “I’m glad he didn’t die there, because that is a sad place.” But I don’t see the farm that way. Granted, Paul lived without electricity or running water. There was no bathroom or even toilet. All the buildings stood crumbling and sagging and rotting and overrun by various rodents. Even so you could still see it as a magical place. Paul has generally left the trees to grow, and there is some magnificent forest: the land, spared from having to feed cattle, has had ample time to replenish iteself and is now verdant and rich and fecund and glorious.

Screen shot 2018-07-03 at 6.17.34 PMThe three of us in the pickup truck knew what to expect (or perhaps what not to expect) when we arrived. We knew to bring our own bedding, blankets, food and drink. (We decided to rely for water on the farm’s two wells). We stopped at a grocery store in Rockland to stock up on beer, ice and food: they took charge of supper, and I took care of breakfast.

For a Dutchman, my father had an appalling, actually a criminal contempt for the discipline required to make a decent cup of coffee. His technique: he lit a fire in his wood stove, to bring a pan of water to boil. He dumped the coffee in the water, boiled it and then strained the resulting slop through a seive into a cup. You always ended up with coffee grounds in your mouth. And so, having learned my lesson after all these years, I brought my own banged-up aluminum percolator, a Canadian Tire job that I bring to Algonquin Park.

My sister had thought to bring toilet paper, but on arrival we saw that his outhouse had blown over in a windstorm a few days before. This was a new twist: in order to visit my father, we actually had to dig our own hole to poop in. Luckily it was a sparkling May afternoon.

Many outhouses have graced that farm over the decades, including one hexagonal job Paul proudly dubbed, “the six-shitter,” but for the past 15 years or so the outhouse has stood on the ridge of what Paul calls “teepee hill,” looking northeast towards Quebec (where lives my mom).  You could see clearly across the river to Quebec before all the trees grew in so thick. That outhouse, an ungainly, top-heavy affair built of wide, hand-milled hardwood boards (form before function is my father’s motto in furniture and design), lay on its side, and there was no sign of a hole.

I rooted around and found a shovel, with a beautiful handle fashioned from the branch of a hardwood tree, and began to dig. It’s a nice farm on which to dig: pure orange sand, with absolutely no rocks. I dug, and dug and dug, and it made me feel happy (I remember now that I have dug lots of holes on that farm in my childhood, in which to sink posts for various little houses in which I slept.

I dug a deep hole; my sister finally told me to stop. Then, working together, four of us tipped the old outhouse upright on the new hole. It wobbled badly though (the shape reminds me of the sentry boxes outside Buckingham Palace). Luckily my sister’s boyfriend, whom I will call Kip, had thought to bring a cordless drill (charged up, wouldn’t you know it) so we attached extra crosspieces of scrap lumber to the thing to strengthen and stiffen the structure.

Screen shot 2018-07-03 at 6.08.38 PMMy father, when we arrived, had been in bed; his bed was on the second floor of the little cinderblock house that he called, “The Annex,” attached to a building first dubbed, “The Piggery,” and then, in later years during the height of Paul’s attempt to perfect a vertical-axis wind turbine on Teepee Hill, “The Mill House.” Paul was asleep upstairs. At some point he came slowly down his spiral staircase, thin as a rail and with his once-sumptuous mane of hair reduced to a short crop. “Peter,” he said, smiling to reveal his one remaining tooth. “I am so glad to see you.” We hugged.

A bit later we were sitting outside in the sun and Paul asked me, “Do you know the word ‘Insufferable?’ Do you know what that means?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You quit your job at the newspaper before you became insufferable,” he said.

On my way to see Paul I’d called my mom, who lives across the river in Western Quebec, and she counseled, “I am so glad that you are going. I know it will be hard, but think of something nice to say to your father.” So what I said to him was, “Paul, I love you. And I want to thank you, because you taught me something. You taught me to be skeptical.”

Paul was weak and frail, and sat in the sun in a folding chair. Kip and I walked to a well to fetch drinking water. I must admit there’s been at least on Mod Con added to the farm: a wooden bar on a yoke attached above the well mouth, on which hangs a pulley, plus a nice little stainless steel pail on a rope. Drop the bucket in the well, loop the rope over the pulley, and pull up a manageable quantity of water. (In my day we threw down big white plastic bucket and pulled them back up hand over hand, sloshing water and getting soaked).

The water came out clear and fresh and cold and sparkling, and Kip and I threw a pail of it on eachother to cool down and to wash up. Then we lit a bonfire on Teepee Hill (someone it seems still drops of random construction waste and old wooden scraps at that spot as Paul and a son had done for many years). As the stars came out we ate smoked chicken (Kip had brought his smoker) and sizzling sausages that a couple, who count among my father’s best friends, had made from their own homegrown pigs. Everyone smoked prodigious quantity of homegrown pot, but I knew the end was near for Paul, since he could no longer easily roll himself a joint – he has been smoking dope without interruption for as long as I can remember.

Sleeping was another challenge for visitors to Paul’s farm. Over the years I’d slept in a log house that was once a sewing room (for Faire banners, teepees and clothing) and later rechristened “The Bush Cabin,” but we went to check it out and it was mostly a pot-drying shed, with all the mattresses tipped on their side, some crumbs on the floor, and was not looking cozy. So my sister and I walked over to “The New House.”

The New House is a grand folly that Paul built about 25 years ago using some novel engineering, with four central posts on which he cantilevered the beams on which he rested the floors and the roof. Because he had failed to build a proper foundation, and did not either make a watertight roof, the New House was abandonned after a few years, and now stands as a kind of monument to my father’s inability to fashion himself a functioning home. It’s full of books and mattresses and furniture, and a big mural presumably painted by my great-grandfather, Otto van Rees, which looks like a fresco from the Sistine Chapel. If faded glory were a commodity, my father would have died a wealthy man. Anyway, we found a mattress and carried it across the field to the Mill House.

The roof of the Mill House holds six plate-glass windows. Windows flank all sides. There are of course no curtains, so, as I discovered at 6 a.m., the quantity of light pouring in is phenomenal. I remember washing dishes and eating meals in this house, back when it housed a working wood stove and running water. The (cold) water ran when you pulled on a rope tied above the sink. The rope ran through a pulley and was tied to some lever that initiated an electrical contact to start the pump. I lived here with my father and the two women in his life and a number of my younger siblings, and we ate porridge and nettle soup and chaste, somewhat stiff and dry pancakes with butter and brown sugar.

That was a long time ago. Today the Mill House survives as a repository for endless treasures and crap: cedar boxes built by my father from huge slabs of hand-split cedar; two rusted wood stoves, an extension cord, a skilsaw, paint brushes, a rusted set of drill bits, a child’s wooden wagon, a hammer, a pair of leather work boots, a wooden dolly, split in two, two newish-looking Ryobi neon-green cordless drills (both fitted with Robertson bits), a box of lightbulbs, each as big as a milk jug, milk crates, glass jars, clay pots, stove pipe, enticing chunks of cedar, boxes of driftwood (in my father’s final career he fashioned quixotic furniture from driftwood he collected on the beaches of Vancouver Island, and then hauled across Canada on a trailer attached to his car), pasta, flour, jars of dried herbs, a straw hat and a motorcycle helmet.

One of my sister’s dogs spent the night with me and presumably kept the rodents away.

I don’t really want nor expect much from Paul’s estate. A piece of furniture might be nice, or a piece of art. What I really want is information. I know from a few years ago, when I wrote a series of newspaper articles about my childhood, that Paul has a remarkable trove of letters, both to him and from him (he writes people letters and they give them back to him?)

“I’d like to know about your archives,” I told Paul on this visit. “I’d like to read them.”

“My advice is, don’t,” said Paul.

In the morning Paul eventually woke up and called down, “Peter, are you awake?” I said I was and he asked me to come upstairs. He lay in the morning light under some old blankets, reading some paperback about which he was very excited (my father read voraciously and had deeply eclectic taste. I know he loved Umberto Eco). This latest book looked like Young Adult fiction to me.

We lit a fire in the wood stove. An old friend of Paul’s came over. We sat outside in the morning sun and ate cantelope and bacon and eggs and toast and, drank, dare I say it, potable coffee.

That’s how I will remember Paul: in the Ontario morning sun, on the grass, barefoot, perched on one of the fanciful chairs he fashioned from driftwood, smiling and drinking coffee.

Then it was time to go. Paul had decided to return to Mexico, where my sister lives, because he had a place to stay there and mostly I think because she took care of him at her place, and he could not look after himself on the farm, a place he had fashioned in such a way that nobody else could possibly live and look after him either. My sister helped Paul to pack. He had one strange old canvas duffle bag that he filled with lots of marijuana, and then put several dozen adult diapers on top, and then instructed my sister to shut the top with thick industrial wire. It seemed the logic was that that even if the border agents troubled themselves to remove all of the wire to get in the bag, they’d come across the adult diapers and decide not to fish any deeper. The incurable smuggler, my father, was doing his last run across the border. And yet I have to smile: at the height of his drug-running days Paul always trafficked pot from Mexico, through the States and into Canada. Now he was attempting the reverse.

Screen shot 2018-07-03 at 6.11.15 PMPaulus Fransiscus Lucas Maria Kuitenbrouwer died on June 25, 2018 in Todos Santos, Mexico, with two of his daughters and three of his 17 or so grandchildren by his side (he also leaves two great-grandchildren). My sisters said they propped him up to face the evening sun, at his request, in the little shack he’d built next to my sister’s house. After that crazy life, the life finally went out of him. He was 83.

We plan to scatter his ashes on the farm where he lived, which he named, “The Farm of 1,000 Secrets” around his 84th birthday, in October. Two days after his birthday, Canada will legalize marijuana. Rest in Peace, Paul. You were never a good role model. And yet you certainly played a role in lifting the marijuana prohibition. You fought your cannabis crusade the way you lived, and as you died – with style.