David Birrell: On Google Searches and Missing My Dad


Google searches are a strange form of crystal ball.  I have used them to ‘research’ ex-boyfriends, old friends, new acquaintances, artists and writers I admire…  I use them to seek out surprising facts, find out ‘whatever happened to’, stumble upon unexpected connections, affirmations, confirmations.

And, as a writer, I am prone to the self-Google.  What am I hoping to learn when I type my own name in that little window and press return?  A surprising fact, a ‘whatever happened to’, an unexpected connection, an affirmation, confirmation?  Yes, I am hoping for all of these, which is odd, considering most of what appears in this type of search is curated to a certain degree — reviews of my books, texts of interviews I have done, reader response on goodreads, feedback from students on Rate My Teacher.  None of it is terribly surprising in the grand scheme of things.

Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death and last week it occurred to me, for the first time, to Google his name.  I thought there might be something archived in a news site — he was a local union leader when his factory shut down; there was coverage — or through an organization related to his employer or the community in Scotland where he grew up.  But there was nothing save a reference to his obituary.  Not the text of the obit itself, just a mention that the text existed.  That he had existed and someone had taken brief note of that.  And it bothered me a little, it did.  Why is this, when I know my dad would not have cared a whit?  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have had time for facebook, might have used email grudgingly, would have insisted on flipping through an encyclopedia rather than ask the internet.

Or maybe not…

In the picture above I am about the same age my oldest daughter is now.  I feel sad my two girls have never known their grandfather.  But I cannot imagine what he would be like if he were still living.  Life has layered over itself so many times now since he died.  We are all different people; we have not moved on so much as accumulated around our younger selves.  Imagining my father alive, now, is an exercise in sci fi, not my genre, and even if it was…

I have written before about the recursive nature of grief and loss — how it doubles back and devastates without warning.  How it surprises you, how it surprises me — still — fifteen years on.  Every year, around the anniversary, I wake up wondering why my entire body aches, why there is a mournful, stolid creature squatting on the bridge of my nose, why everything feels foggy and futile.  Part of that sorrow is simply a rearing up of the trauma associated with the sudden death of a loved one, but part of it, I’m sure, is the sadness, the resignation of knowing that I cannot find my father in any crystal ball — I don’t know who he is anymore.

It doesn’t matter that my dad doesn’t exist on the internet.  I know that.  (There is a plaque in his honour next to the elevator in the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto; people can read about him in those empty moments that precede their important journeys up or down.  He would have liked that, I think.)  Still, I want there to be google entries for him beyond a dry reference to his death.  So I’ve made one here.  Here is the full text of his obituary:

BIRRELL, David Dryburgh

September 27, 1942 to March 30, 1998

‘Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion for goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.’  — Robert Burns

Through his active involvement in the United Rubber Workers and United Steel Workers of America, Dave helped bring justice and comfort to the lives of his co-workers.  Dave died suddenly at work.  He was much loved and will be terribly missed by his wife Jenny, daughters Heather and Julie, sister Rena, mother-in-law Joan, sister-in-law Pat, brothers-in-law Rob, Brian and Andy, nieces and nephews Betty, Margaret, Katherine, Rory and Caeili.  He lives on in the hearts of his family and many special friends.  Friends may call at the Turner and Porter Yorke Chapel, 2357 Bloor Street West, at Windermere, near the Jane subway from 5-9 p.m. Friday.  Funeral Service will be held in the Chapel on Saturday April 4 at 3 o’clock.  Cremation.  Donations to the Steelworkers Humanity Fund in memory of David Birrell, 234 Eglinton Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto M4P 1K7.

I want to tell you, also, that at his funeral, a group of working men stood and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ and that my sister and I recited a bit from The Water Babies, in French.  That he and I used to sing Pretty Peggy-O together at parties:  ‘The captain’s name was Ned and he died just for a maid…’  That I’d never seen him more furious than the time I insisted on wearing jeans for a performance of Cats — a super special family occasion!  That he could never remember that I was studying ‘creative writing’ but that he once told me he was so proud to have a poet in the family.  That he quit school when he was 16 to work in a coal mine in Fife, Scotland.  Also:  he drove my sister to swim practice and he smoked and you know, maybe he would have used the internet…  He loved my mother.  I can’t fit him on here.  People aren’t really meant to fit on here.  And a google search will only ever give you fitful, broken answers.  Still, here I am typing away, tossing this out into the web, hoping somewhere it will stick.


CBC Bookie Awards

Mad Hope has been nominated for an ‘Overlookie Bookie’ as part of the CBC Bookie Awards.  If you are a person who is okay with survivor-style book-boosting, then please go vote in this and other categories for books you deem deserving.  If voting for stories feels weird to you, then put your lit-loving energies into buying or borrowing books that turn your readerly crank.

Scroll down to end of list to find Mad Hope (I kind of like the idea of Mad Hope at the bottom of the list — like, we need it, but we sometimes don’t remember until the last minute to scrawl it down, y’know?).

Irma Voth

I just finished reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.  I absolutely adored this book.  It is lovely and funny/sorrowful and it’s about sisters and the shifting boundaries of the self and the ways in which art imitates and improves life and is sometimes absolutely inadequate and often the solution to everything — at least for an important moment.  And, oh, it asks so many good questions.  Here’s an excerpt:


I was rejoicing silently in my heart.  I had asked a good question, I had asked a good question of someone I was trying to be friends with as opposed to myself.  A question that had breath attached to it, that had left my own body.  Jorge told me not to ask questions, he hated them, he could always tell when I was about to ask one and he’d put his hand up and say no, please.  Please.  Was I betraying Jorge by asking a good question of Wilson?

HB and KK at UT!

Winter keeps on keepin’ on around these parts, despite some deceptively sunny skies.  But I’m really looking forward to coming out of hibernation in April with a reading and q & a at the University of Toronto with my pal and writing compadre, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer.  Please come and see us if you have the time and inclination.  We would both be so happy to see you.  The reading is on Wednesday April 3, at 6:30 pm.  It’s in the Jackman Humanities Building, 170 Saint George Street, in Room 100 (Ground Floor).  And admission is free!