The Doc Project

Camilla Gibb had heard from her father once in 30 years - and then the hospital called

"I believe I am taking care of your father." When award-winning author Camilla Gibb heard from a hospital across the country, it reawakened a fear she had been fighting for a lifetime.

Duncan Gibb was brilliant and creative. He was also destructive, paranoid and cruel.

Camilla Gibb's father was brilliant, talented, but also deeply unsettling. Thirty years after he disappeared, she suddenly learned his whereabouts, sending her on a journey both into the past and across the country. 2:19
Listen28:28

By Camilla Gibb

My father, Duncan, is crouched in the dirt, looking like a wild and frightened animal. It's the summer of 1989 and he is at a cottage with his brother Andrew, who has come over from England to see him.

Camilla Gibb's father, Duncan, Muskoka, 1989. (Camilla Gibb)

Andrew is worried about Duncan, but I don't know if he quite knows how badly my father's situation has deteriorated. The truth is my father is currently homeless, squatting in a warehouse near Cherry Beach in Toronto, and taking refuge in the nearby Knob Hill Farms to warm himself up in winter. Andrew wants to help Duncan turn his life around, not least, because he is a parent. But my father does not want to hear it.

A few months after this photo was taken, my father disappeared. I've heard from once in the past three decades and only then, because I hired a private detective. The detective located him in Calgary, where he was getting by building decks and fences. I called my father to ask how he was.

Rough. Bottom of the food chain.- Camilla Gibb's father, Duncan

I wrote that down in a journal 18 years ago, because I didn't want to forget the words. I've always written everything down. To make sense of the painful and crazy. To remove it from the subjective to objective perhaps, to put some distance between it and me. Because when you grow up with a man who is prone to manic outbursts and is destructive, paranoid and cruel, it is hard for things not to collapse.

Spring picnic in the park: Camilla Gibb as a baby, with her father, Duncan. (Camilla Gibb)

I have spent most of my adult life worrying I have inherited my father's darkness. I myself have experienced two deep and protracted episodes of depression: one that saw me hospitalized in my mid-to-late twenties; and one that has challenged me now for the past eight years. My father was 49 when he disappeared — dropped off at the side of the 401, planning to hitch a ride out west. I am 49 now. It haunts me, this fear of how it unfolds from here; I worry I could go off the rails just like him.

Camilla Gibb and her father, circa 1971, piggybacking in an English garden. (Camilla Gibb)

I've spent years wondering if my father is dead. But then, last year, I got a Facebook message from someone I didn't know, a woman who introduced herself as a doctor in Nanaimo, B.C. — a place I had never been — asking me to make contact.

"I believe I am taking care of your father." 

In that moment my entire body became a heartbeat. I called the doctor and learned that my father, a 75-year-old man of no fixed address, had been brought into the hospital by two RCMP officers after a particularly grisly suicide attempt. He'd since suffered a debilitating stroke. The doctor was gently asking me to make a decision about whether to take him off life support.

I had no answer for her, only a stream of unanswerable questions. How had it come to this? Had a tragic end always been inevitable? And if I had inherited my father's darkness, what did this say about me?

Camilla Gibb and her father, Duncan, reading stories. (Camilla Gibb)
 
There was a time when I was young and my father was a father. He taught me how to swim and ride a bike. He was a dreamer: always full of ideas. My mother remembers him spending weeks drawing up plans for a flying bicycle. When I asked her recently what she made of this, she said:

"I just thought it was kind of amusing at the time."

Camilla Gibb and her father spending the weekend on a farm near Ottawa, circa 1979. (Camilla Gibb)
 
But not everyone found his behaviour amusing. He was harsh, hyper-critical and socially awkward, with a temper that bristled just beneath the surface. Although my friends were wary of him, I felt protective. In the early 1970s, his employer sent him for a psychological assessment. The results were damning — phrases like "cold, overbearing dictator" have stayed with me — but my father was infinitely proud of that report, primarily because it determined he had an IQ of 140. For a man who held education and authority in contempt, this served as incontrovertible proof of his superiority.
Camilla Gibb's father, Duncan, was obsessed with renovating things, including this bungalow in Eastern Ontario. He did not put in plumbing or heating, but he built a turret on the top. (Camilla Gibb)
 

My father died the day after I spoke to the doctor in Nanaimo. His lungs had filled with fluid throughout the night. I felt numb and sad and quiet. A few months later, the hospital forwarded his few personal papers to me, including a suicide note. It was really little more than a list of reasons to die: arthritis, failing eyesight and a refusal to work for minimum wage. No regret, remorse or longing. It made me wonder whether he even remembered that he had a daughter. It was an end I found difficult to bear.

Duncan Gibb's driver's license photo, which was inside the folder sent from the hospital after his death. (Camilla Gibb)

I wondered about the last days of his life and where, if anywhere, he might be buried. So around the anniversary of his death, I decided to go to Vancouver Island, where I embarked on a tour you won't find recommended in any guide book.

I visited the funeral home, the cemetery, the motel where he tried to kill himself, the RCMP station, and the home of the man I think of as my father's only old friend — another Englishman named Duncan. We used to socialize together as families in the 1970s at Duncan's big country house. Duncan had remained friends with my father into the 1990s, despite erratic behaviour that had included setting fire to one of Duncan's fields — my father's idea of a joke.

In a small gated community in Parksville, B.C., I spend an evening with Duncan, chatting and drinking beer. He is remarkably empathic toward my father, describing him as someone who was always on the outside looking in. It strikes me that this is way I have often described myself. My father had told Duncan that he had a very distant relationship with his parents, one without love or affection. They sent him off to boarding school from the ages of six to 16 and he felt he had been cast away.

Camilla and her father's old friend, Duncan Stainrod, Parksville, 2017. (Camilla Gibb)
 

At one point during our evening together, Duncan remarks how much like my mother I am. I'm taken aback. It might seem perfectly obvious, but I'm half my mother as well — the sensible, hardworking woman who kept it together for her kid. My father has cast such a long dark shadow that it's been hard for me to see this myself. I'm reassured by Duncan, reassured and grateful.

Camilla Gibb and her mother, Sheila, at the Brickworks, Toronto. (Camilla Gibb)
 

My last stop in Nanaimo is the hospital to meet with the doctor who first contacted me through Facebook. She remembers the details and says that after she'd first spoken to me, she'd gone into my father's room and told him she had spoken to his daughter. 

"His daughter." Hearing this takes my breath away.
Camilla Gibb in Tofino, Vancouver Island. (Camilla Gibb)

Whether or not my father had been able to take this in, she reinserted me into his life in a way. She did it for him because she felt badly that he was alone, without family around him. She couldn't have known that she was also doing this for me, reasserting my existence not only as his daughter, but as a person, one perhaps more like my mother than my father than I'd ever realized.

To hear the documentary "Evidence of a father," click Listen at the top of this page or download and subscribe to our podcast. 

Need help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website is a good resource.

Camilla Gibb
About the producer

Camilla Gibb is an award-winning author of four novels and most recently, the Charles Taylor-nominated memoir This Is Happy. 

This documentary was co-produced by Jennifer Warren, with editing from Julia Pagel and Alison Cook.