Photos: Likeness book cover; Author David Macfarlane by Nigel Dickson; Painting by John Hartman called "David Macfarlane, Hamilton," 2014, oil on linen, 60 x 66 in., courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Like Father, Like Son
David Macfarlane's new memoir explores relationships among men, and the grief of losing his son Blake, 29, to cancer / BY Patricia Hluchy / May 21st, 2021
A cardboard box containing the remains of William Blakely Macfarlane sits on a shelf in his father’s Toronto home office. Blakely was 29 when he died in January 2018 after enduring four and a half gruelling years with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The vibrant young man’s illness and death are the shattered heart of David Macfarlane’s beautifully wrought new memoir, Likeness: Fathers, sons, a portrait. In an interview, the author says during the time he worked on Likeness, Blake maintained a kind of presence in his imagination. “In that Joan Didion Year of Magical Thinking kind of way, it was about a year or so of being with Blake, because I was always writing it with him in mind and wondering, ‘What would he think of this?’ … It was his sensibility in some sense that was guiding me.” As for what to do with his ashes, the family simply hasn’t decided. David and his wife, designer Janice Lindsay, and their daughter, 35-year-old documentary filmmaker Caroline Macfarlane, are thinking about distributing them in Temagami, a wilderness area in northeastern Ontario where the four of them had many summer holidays, or perhaps Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where they often visited friends. It has to be “some place associated with Blake that is beautiful,” says David, 68, although having his ashes in the house “is quite nice.”
Father and son were close, and the family shares a love of the creative arts. David is a celebrated journalist and author of the widely acclaimed 1991 non-fiction work The Danger Tree, about his mother’s clan in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the 1999 novel Summer Gone, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. While David has stuck to writing (and playing rhythm guitar in an “it has to be fun” band), Blake was a more restless creator: a filmmaker, a DJ, a music composer, and, towards the end of his life, an animator. “He really had a kind of bravery and would just sort of strike out on his own and do things,” says David. “And he had a quirky, funny, irreverent personality that came through in the things that he created. He was more adventurous creatively than I am. I think the great sadness — well, there are a lot of great sadnesses — is that we’ll never know his potential.”
David might extol his son’s artistic bravery over his own, but with Likeness he, too, displays creative boldness. The book’s framing device is a large 2014 oil portrait of David standing in front of the house where he grew up in Hamilton, Ont., by Canadian artist John Hartman. When David told Hartman’s Toronto art dealer he might like to write about the painting, the canvas was installed in David’s living room and stayed there for about four years. In his memoir, David strives to approximate how visual art can represent a person, and a life. The book moves freely around in time, revisiting aspects of David’s life — not just his relationship with Blake, but also his own childhood and youth, and in many ways it’s a love letter to Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats, golf, the family swimming pool and his band, among other things.
The book’s digressive quality came about, in part, because “I think we exist constantly in multiple planes of time, that at any moment we’re considering the present, the past, the future; we kind of layer these things on top of one another in our perceptions of the world. And it’s one of the things that people like Michael Pollan talk about when they talk about psychedelic drugs — drugs break down that kind of barrier, so that the phases of time begin to overlap.” David’s own youthful LSD trips reinforced the sense of human consciousness not being linear, he observes.
Meanwhile, the tragedy of Blake’s death looms over the book. There are moments that strike deep, especially if the reader is a parent. There is the day when father and son got the leukemia diagnosis and, as they hugged and cried, David realized that Blake’s hair “smelled just as it had when he was a little boy.” Or when the author remembers when he last held hands with his son, when Blake was little. Or when he recounts how Blake, in the later stages of his illness and living in his parents’ basement apartment, would call upstairs in the middle of the night to say he was in terrible pain. “I’d come downstairs to his bedroom and stand beside his bed,” David says in the interview, “and he’d kind of hang from my shoulders. Not all of his weight. Just enough to alleviate some of the pain.” In Likeness, he writes: “I had what most fathers of grown sons don’t: those long, long hugs. “
In the book, David reflects on how his relationship with his decidedly taciturn dad, an ophthalmologist and Blake’s namesake who died in 2010, was different from his connection to his own son. “I think, particularly when I was a teenager, my relationship with my father was hard,” he says. “But as I got to know and understand him, I came to like him more and honestly became quite fond of his affection for his own background, whereas I think initially, as a teenager and a young man, that background was something I was trying to escape — not in any dramatic way, but I didn’t necessarily want to grow up in Hamilton. Whereas my father … was like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to grow up in Hamilton?’”
With Blake, there was a different generational gap, which had to do with technology and the dire state of the world, so unlike the brimming-with-optimism zeitgeist of David’s own post-war, middle-class youth. But they had similar interests and similar tastes. David’s friends became his son’s friends, and many of them were musical pals, including members of Dad’s band. So it was easy to figure out a way to celebrate Blake on the first birthday after his death, in November 2018, which David hopes will become an annual event once the pandemic has receded: the family hosted a musical evening at home featuring singer-songwriters Murray McLauchlan, Kevin Breit and Charlotte Day Wilson, all of whom had a connection to Blake. “Kevin played ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ which Blake used to play on the piano in the living room, and he did it beautifully. Charlotte sang Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon,’ which Blake was learning towards the end of his life. Murray sang his song ‘Down by the Henry Moore’; Blake had played that song with Murray before. It was a magical, magical evening.”