I still remember the moment I knew — really knew — that my dad was dying.
I was in a cheap hotel in Bangkok, lying there awake trying to sleep. I’d received an email that day which said my dad had been ill, and they were sending him for some tests. One of the last lines read, “You should probably come home.”
There was nothing in the message to cause any more alarm than that. But when night came down and left me alone with my thoughts, this fear gripped me in the pit of my stomach, and I knew somehow that it was the beginning of the end.
I knew it with even more clarity three years later, after his second surgery, when he went into the hospital for the last time — and despite the optimistic bullshit and long term plans I was hearing from his doctors. I pulled over and cried on the side of the highway late that night, because this knowing just bubbled up and escaped and I couldn’t control it. And then I bottled it up and went home, and poured a big glass of whiskey and tried to blot it out.
Even then, I avoided really looking at the fact that he was dying, even though I knew deep down that it was true.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband, Joan Didion wrote that, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes life changes gradually, in a decline that lasts for months or years. So slowly that it’s difficult to notice how much worse things are getting. And the only constant in all that time is the painful aching knot in the pit of your stomach that keeps you company every night.
Those images of the hospital stayed with me for many years. Especially late at night when I was trying to sleep. But a very long-short decade later, they’re finally being replaced by happy memories.
I grew up in a working class family. My dad was a highly skilled plumber and steamfitter. He worked at a factory called Philip’s Cables, and I’m told he kept the entire place running.
He was the sort of guy everyone seemed to like. A hard worker who was always willing to lend a hand, and a quiet man who was quick with a joke and a smile. I know his friends still think of him anytime someone lights a pipe or a cigar, or mumbles a sly remark behind twinkling blue eyes. My father had really good friends. In the words of Mark Twain, even the undertaker was sad at his funeral.
I always got along well with my dad. But I don’t think he ever really understood my world, especially when I was younger. He played baseball and hockey in his younger years. But I’ve never played hockey, can’t skate, and have never done any team sports at all. Instead, I was bookish, and I got in trouble a lot.
I think those things probably disappointed him in a way. But he supported me without question when I became obsessed with martial arts at the age of 15. He drove me to training sessions, no matter how bad the weather. He made weapons and training tools for me and my friends. And later on, when my interests had shifted to atlases and maps, he always slipped me money to travel, though he tended to worry about the places I went.
I learned so many things from my father, and I’ve been thinking about a few of them today.
My father taught me the value of hard work.
He never traveled, and apart from doing a little fishing in the St. Lawrence River, or going on our annual one-week May fishing trip, he never seemed to take time off.
During his summer holidays, dad would work at home. He painted the entire outside of our house on his two-week summer vacation one year. He tore up the yard and laid down sod. He tarred the metal roofs on the side and front porches. And once when his company was on strike, he painstakingly stripped down several layers of old lead paint from both porches using a heat gun, and carefully painted them again in fresh grey. This was in between taking his turn on the picket line in 32C heat.
I think I took a lot of that stuff for granted, just as I took it for granted that he and I would go to my grandmother’s after work / school to cut the lawn or shovel snow. And that each job would be done precisely and well, with not a clipping or a ridge out of place. Cutting corners was not a part of my father’s vocabulary.
I knew these things because I saw them every day. But it was only when I worked with my dad for 2 weeks one summer that I came to appreciate — and respect — his abilities.
When I was 17, he got me a temporary job at his factory during the two week summer maintenance shutdown. We drove to the factory before dawn every day and put in a full 12 hours. And on the way home from work, after stopping for a beer, he would drop me off at the Sunoco station, where I would put in another 5 hours at my regular part-time job. Some nights I went to see my girlfriend after that, too. And the next day I would lie down on the grass and sleep through the lunch hour rather than eat.
As I struggled to keep up with my dad’s pace, I saw the respect that everyone in the factory had for him. The other guys would often take me aside to tell me stories, like the one where two guys were struggling down a hallway with a heavy length of steel pipe, and then my dad came around the corner behind them carrying one under each arm, with a cigar sticking out of his mouth. The opportunity to see him through their eyes was more valuable than all the money I earned that summer.
My father also taught me never to judge anyone by their appearance.
I remember coming home from university one weekend. Dad picked me up at the bus station, and as was often the case, we stopped for a cold beer at a couple of his local backroads spots on the way home.
We walked into the first bar, and this big mean-looking biker saw us and came straight over. Before I had time to wonder if there’d be trouble, he bought my dad a beer. And then two other bikers came over and did the same thing.
I took him aside and said, “How the hell do you know these guys?”
Turns out that he’d beaten them so many times at pool the week before that they still owed him drinks. A couple of those same guys came to his funeral, or stopped me on the street to offer a kind word.
I think it’s thanks to those back country road trips that I can feel at home anywhere, from a run down old bar to a 5 star hotel.
I learned a lot of other things from my dad too…
I learned about the importance of keeping my word.
I learned how to be a gentleman.
I learned to be patient, but to know where to draw the line — and that if I had to fight, to hit so hard that I wouldn’t have to fight again.
I learned to own up and make amends when I was in the wrong, and to stick to my guns when I wasn’t. Dad often stuck up for me when I got in trouble at school, because every once in a while I really wasn’t to blame.
Dad also taught responsibility by letting me assume it, whether it was going out and getting my first paper route in 5th grade, or shovelling the driveway of Mr. Dubrule across the street.
When it came time for me to decide on a university, I filled out the applications, and then came home one day and said, “I got accepted to these programs, and I decided to take this one.” I went apartment hunting in Ottawa on my own too. When I found a place I liked, I brought home the rental form and asked dad to co-sign. My mother flipped out about it and insisted on getting involved and meddling. But my dad just said, “He knows what he’s doing!” and signed on the line. He always trusted my judgement. I really appreciated that.
I looked up to my father, and seeing him suffer from cancer left me with a great deal of anger and bitterness. I also felt robbed in a sense, because he died just as my very first magazine feature was in final layouts. He never got to see my work published. It came out just a few days too late.
He never saw my first book either — though he did catch me working on it once at the kitchen table. And he never saw the seminars I taught in all sorts of countries, my radio or TV appearances, or any of that stuff. At the time he died, I was still working one crappy temp job after another, barely scraping by, and none of my plans were paying off.
I felt robbed in a sense, because he supported me without question through all those struggles, and he never had the satisfaction of seeing my eventual success.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I don’t subscribe to any religion, except maybe that of the old Greek gods. But I felt then — and still feel now — that if I am wrong and there does turn out to be a god, I will spit in its face for the miserable illness my dad had to endure. Some of the sadness of those years may fade, but that anger never has.
But I can say that, after 10 years, those images of hospital rooms and of lonely drives back home to clean out an empty apartment have finally been replaced by happier memories.
And as I’ve grown older and learned more about myself, I’ve come to have a more balanced view of my father too.
I can see now that, though my dad was a physically strong man, he was never comfortable with emotion or conflict. He was old fashioned in that stoic sense, the strong one in the house who was never vulnerable. The sort of pillar you could depend on. He rarely ever raised his voice, and he would walk away rather than get baited into bitter arguments.
These are noble traits on many occasions, but that weakness also allowed my mother’s passive-aggressiveness and yelling to get out of control. And looking back, I can see that it wasn’t just her anger and bitterness that made life at home difficult. We were all responsible for the way we lived.
I learned many great lessons from my father, and I think I picked up a lot of his good traits. But I also modelled the less helpful ones too, including that reluctance to deal directly with emotional conflict. It took me several years and a lot of hard lessons to come to realize it, and to change.
I guess what I mean to say is that, after all these years, I finally see my father as a person. Someone with his own strengths and weaknesses. A great person, but one who also had challenges that he was never able to overcome. Much like any of us, really. And there are just as many good lessons in that too.
But enough talk, and enough memories.
I’m opening the cabinet tonight, and taking out a nice heavy glass.
And I’m pouring a slug of Bushmills Irish whiskey, and raising it in honour of a fine man who is sadly missed.
I hope you’ll join me in my toast — those of you who knew him in person, and those who know him only through my words.