June 20, 2009

Some words for my old man, for Fathers Day...

My Dad was possibly born in the wrong era: I think there was an adventurer in him, or a cowboy of some sort, trying to live a black and white life, while contradictory and complex psychologies and modern mental illnesses swirled around him. My Dad always told colourful, exciting stories of his past, that made him out to be the hero and the good guy. He was an MP in the Canadian Army, and flew in big planes when he was in the Air Force. In his heart, he was conservative and authoritarian, and in his best moments, he was firm but fair.

On the outside, people in our neighbourhood would probably see my Dad as a fairly quiet, silver-haired older man (my friends' Dads were in their forties, when mine was in his late 50s), and someone with a serious, lined face which got softer as you approached it up close.

To me, as a kid, Dad was the toughest, strongest man on any block. Physically, he could take care of himself using his voice, his head, or his hands. Even when there was more than one guy against him, swinging bottles at him, he would walk away the winner. When I was nine, we lived in a rough neighbourhood. When he had to be, my Dad was a fighter, and I was so proud of him.

When I was 11, Dad become a single parent when my Mum almost died, and went to stay in a succession of hospitals. Dad always knew what needed to be done in most situations.

When I was 13, I got a bad case of chickenpox that kept me home from school for a couple of weeks. Then, he was the nurse, dabbing calamine lotion all over me until I thought I would throw up. Past this age, I stopped kissing him goodnight - not because I didn't love him, but because we understood that it's okay for little boys to kiss their fathers, but men don't kiss like that.

As I got older and more self-sufficient, he got frailer and more dependent. When I was 17, I was by his side when he suffered a heart attack and multiple strokes, and a fractured hip. We were both scared as hell for him, yet he found the strength to say "I love you boy" to me from his temporary bed in the ER. He became helpless for a while, and had to learn to walk as part of his stroke rehab. He was learning to get back on his feet (literally) and I was getting on my feet, acting the part of a responsible young man. I started looking after the house as best I could, and he learned to walk and talk and move his limbs. We were reversed.

The sad part of Dad's physical downfall was that it came about as a result of years of alcohol abuse, smoking, stress and poor health. The lesson he taught me indirectly was that to live my life the way I wanted, I must take better care of myself than he did. He also taught me that addiction is a mysterious and bewilderingly powerful thing. After he was "healed" and back home after his many months of rehab and therapy, he began drinking again. Within months, he had another stroke, and was back in hospital, this time for good.

By the time I was 18 or 19 years old, I was aware of my Dad's weaknesses: how the same temper that gave him strength against other bad men, was a horror when brought to use against his wife or me and my sister. We learned that sometimes, his drinking or his temper meant that we could not trust him, or feel safe around him. I learned that addiction is a bitch, and the strongest man I knew was also the weakest man I knew. As I witnessed how he let himself lose control to his addiction, I vowed that I would never be that weak in that way.

Now, at 43, and after years of reflection, both loving and resenting him posthumously, I see my father as a fascinating composite of the best and worst traits we all posses: a complex man who could be gentle and loving to little children, animals, or those closest to him, and a man with a fierce pride and temper which could seem insurmountable when challenged.

At his best, he was an intellectual trapped in a blue collar, with an ability to explain aspects of electronics, RF or particles like mesons to his curious son. He was literate enough to quote Will Rogers, tell me about a Jazz trumpeter he liked, and to know the lyrics of some musical theatre on TV. He was silly, laughing along to Blazing Saddles or Wile E. Coyote.

At his worst, he was alcoholic enough, unhealthy enough, and probably depressed enough to permanently ruin his relationship with my sister, and never reflective or honest enough to admit to his own weaknesses. The hero that I had as a little boy was still inside him somewhere, but years of stress, poor choices and bad living eventually overshadowed all that dreamy, good stuff.

In his last years, Dad seemed to find his peace living semi-paralyzed and bruised, in a small room in a private hospital in Burnaby, where I'd visit him every week. Often, I'd cycle over in time for the 7:30 pm snack of sandwiches and tea, and we'd chat and watch some TV, and later I'd help him find something which he had misplaced.

He couldn't really take care of himself at all anymore, but he had 24 hour care if he needed it. In a way, his earlier life choices had taken away his later choices as well as his responsibilities. Sometimes, when his old ego and sense of self-importance would flare up, his dependence upon others would frustrate the hell out of him. Other times, he appeared relieved to not have to make decisions or deal with the stresses of life anymore.

Up until the time he passed away in 1989, Dad was one of those story tellers whose tales got bigger and better each time he told them: "The older I get, the better I was", as they say - that was my old man. Often, I would arrive outside his little room to find him sitting in his wheelchair with his chin propped up on his good hand and a dreamy grin planted on his face, probably dreaming of some adventure that had happened somewhere else, way back in the day when he was still someone's hero.

Wherever you are, old man, Happy Fathers Day. I still love you.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Some very touching words John. Some of the things you said could have come out of my mouth. I believe that because of my dad's weaknesses and addictions I am a better person and know what to stay away from to keep being that person I want to be. I lost my dad in 96 and still miss him alot, especially when I need to ask for advice on something. You aure have a way with words.
Andrew S.