To my Father

Father’s Day brings memories of the worst day of my life, when my father died in my arms. I have been tormented by the memory of that day and it always brings on the tears. I would give anything to have him back, but the reality is he’s gone. I like to believe that he is sitting on a porch somewhere, with my mother, looking out at the lake they loved so much, having “Happy Hour” and enjoying life, whatever than means where they are now. Although both of my parent’s lives ended tragically, my Dad’s from what’s called “dry drowning, a result of this asthma and my darling mother from Alzheimer’s, they both lived long and mostly happy lives. My Dad made it to 81 and my mum to 84, although she didn’t remember much the last few years of her life.

Just like every other Dad in the world, he made his fair share of mistakes, some of which he admitted to in his later years. He was a product of that era when men don’t cry or show emotion as that was supposedly a sign of weakness. He may well have kissed me as a baby or told me he loved me, but not when there was any chance I would remember it. Not until I was in my late forties and he had just received a phone call from my mother’s doctor that they had caught the cancer in time to save her did I see him ever breakdown and cry like a baby. This must have stirred something deep inside of him because he suddenly started telling us he loved us and became affectionate, with hugs and kisses. It was surreal at the time, after a lifetime without this, but it was welcome, no matter how weird.

He was a strong and principled man who fought for what he believed in. When he worked at the Texaco refinery in Port Credit, as a welder, someone had forgotten to empty out the oil from one of tanks he was working on and there was an explosion. My Dad suffered second and third degree burns to ninety-five percent of his body. I still remember going to see him in the hospital and he was like a mummy, with only slits for his eyes and mouth. He had to endure painful saltwater baths for days and changing his bandages must have been excruciating. He came out of it and immediately went after the company for their woefully inadequate safety and emergency procedures. Obviously his clothes were burnt right off him, but the company didn’t even have a blanket to cover him. He had the good sense, on his own, to immediately remember to roll over and over to douse the flames, but he forgot to keep his legs closed, so he suffered really bad burns on the inside of this legs.

Back in World War Two, although he never liked to talk about it much, he was in the Navy, aboard the HMCS Skeena, a ship that was lost in a storm off the coast of Iceland. He watched helplessly as many of his fellow sailors gave up and drowned in the icy water. He managed to make it to shore but he was bitten by a rattlesnake that ended up costing him a finger that had to be amputated. True to my Dad he had fun for years tricking kids with the “disappearing finger”. He did get a few measly bucks from the government for the loss of his finger, which helped out over the years, I’m sure.

As much as I dearly loved him, I hold him solely responsible for denying me my early teenage years. After living in downtown Toronto he packed up and moved the family to what was to me the middle of nowhere, a farm north of what was known as Streetsville back then, now part of Mississauga. It was an old farmhouse that had no running water and was heated by a pot-bellied stove. Yes, in the depths of winter we had to make it out to the outhouse, freezing our tails off, or learn to hold it. Managing the stove was a nightmare. He would stoke it last thing at night and pray we didn’t all freeze to death by the morning. One night I woke up in a literal sweat because it was cooking in my room. When I got downstairs there was Dad soaking towels and putting them on the kitchen floor linoleum because it was melting! He had gone a little overboard on wood in the stove and it was red hot. There’s no thermostat on a pot-bellied stove. It was a very old wood-framed house, so it’s a miracle it didn’t go up in flames that night.

Why I say he stole my teenage years was because he might have bought this old place, but it was not going to stay that way. I spent pretty well every single weekend helping him to put in a central furnace, indoor plumbing (we turned a bedroom into a big bathroom, complete with purple sinks), tearing out walls to make for a huge living room, in which he removed all the plaster to expose the original rough hewed beams. We tore out all the old heating pipes that ran everywhere from the stove. We added aluminum siding. We wallpapered every room. The place was done over from top to bottom. I should mention that, even though he put in a furnace, it was coal-fired because there no natural gas way out in the country. I remember shoveling a lot of coal back then.

There were a lot of reno stories from those years, from tearing up the kitchen floor and discovering newspapers from the early twenties, to the day Dad got me out of bed after three weeks of the mumps, to have me hold the copper pipes he was soldering in the kitchen. The last thing I remember was me fainting and Dad dropping the welding torch to grab me. Again, he nearly set the place on fire. Or the time he was working on the electrical and asked me to pull a plug out, but he told me the power was off. It wasn’t. As I pulled on the wire, something I should not have done, the wires came out of the plug and I got the shock of my young life. I ended up across the room with Dad laughing his head off. It was not that funny!

So many great memories of Dad from those days. In the winter he had bought an old Jeep, 1942 with an actual bullet hole in the side, and we did snow-plowing for all the neighbors. Dad would wake me in the middle of the night to help him. My job was to pull the pin out of the plow and change it to work the other direction, freezing my butt off the whole time., while Dad was in the Jeep, nice and warm. Child abuse! In the winter we hooked everyone’s toboggans and people on skis and Dad would tow us around the fields. In the summer he would take us back into the steep hills and scare the crap out of us, nearly tipping over going sideways on the hills.

Thanks to Dad, we had our share of toys back then too. We had mini bikes and a snowmobile and an above ground pool. It was all from Dad’s ( and mine) hard work and we had a ball. It was a very sad day when they announced that they were packing up and moving to BC. This was in 1970 and I had met who would become my future wife and we had a baby on the way, so there was no way I could go with them. It changed all of our lives forever.

We didn’t have a lot of contact over the next two decades, although I did travel out to see them a couple of times. The whole family went out for a vacation when Heather was only a few months old. Dad had rented a camper van and we traveled all around Alberta and BC. It was the best holiday of my life. Dad would go into the back to make drinks for everyone, not me, and I would watch him in the rear-view mirror and just as he was about to pour the pop in I would gently swerve the van back and forth. He cursed me for that.

Dad and Mum, for that matter, were always the life of the party, wherever they went. Neither could be accused of being shy. On one of my trips out we went to a bar downtown. There were three floors and my sister and I were standing near the stairs, talking on the second floor. We overheard some people coming down that were talking about the amazing “old couple” that were dancing up a storm in the dance contest upstairs. We looked at each other and said, “yep. Mum and Dad”. We rushed upstairs in time to see them win the contest and get a huge bottle of champagne. Made us proud.

Another time my girlfriend at the time had her mother visiting and we decided to take the tour of the lake on the Fintry Queen. We were on the upper deck and, well, other than the pretty scenery, it was pretty boring. There was music playing and a band downstairs. My Dad disappeared and came back a few minutes later and the next thing we hear is the Bird Dance song, much louder. My Dad got everybody up doing the dance and he kept them at it for the rest of the cruise. At one point he had the nerve to go down and tell the band to keep it down. At the end of the cruise as we were getting off the captain was at the exit. As soon as he saw Mum and Dad he asked them to stay on board for the next cruise, free of charge to entertain the guests. That was my parents wherever they went. Sometimes we were horrified at how they were so “out there”, but, in our hearts, we were quietly proud of them.

There are a lifetime of memories with Dad, mostly good ones but a few bad. Dad and I were both head-strong types and we often butted heads over things. The dearest and most lasting memory of my Dad has to be dirt-biking. I could write an entire novel on all our wonderful adventures on our bikes, in and around Kelowna, Peachland and Revelstoke. As he used to say, a bad day on a dirt-bike was still better than anything else. We biked together for many years and I miss that the most. It’s hard to narrow down one memory when there were hundreds, but my favourite was when we were all biking up in Revelstoke one time. There was my Dad, my brother, my brother-in-law and me and we got up very high on one of the mountains. To our considerable surprise we came across what I can only describe as a swamp blocking our path further up the mountain. We thought it was an old logging area where they used to marshal the trees and, for some reason, it had collected a lot of water and then turned into a swamp. As we sat pondering whether or not we would risk crossing it and possibly losing our bikes because we had no idea how deep it might be, along comes Dad and rides straight across without a moment’s hesitation, bouncing all over, feet flying everywhere, across the swamp and up the berm on the other side. We laughed our butts off, but, now, of course, we had no choice but to go ourselves or we would never have lived it down if we hadn’t. Dad was fearless.

Another time, as I was at the point where I felt I was a pretty good rider, we were jawing on about how fast we could go. We were about to head up Blue Grouse mountain, a pretty steep climb all the way to the observation tower at the top. As we crossed the lower field before the logging trail started, I hollered to Dad, “see you at the top” and I was off. I admit that I was going full out, taking all kids of chances and thought I had left Dad in my dust. As I rounded one particularly steep turn, about three-quarters of the way up, I caught a glimpse of Dad, right on my ass! I never thought he would ever be able to keep up with me and figured I’d  be waiting for him at the top. No such luck!

Things have certainly changed a lot over the years, none of it for the better. My Dad and Mum are both gone now. My own kids have abandoned me for reasons I will never know. I don’t get to see my five grandkids who don’t even know that their grandfather is alive. So, if you have kids, treasure every minute spent with them. Reach out and tell them you love them every chance you get. For the kids, forgive your father willingly for anything he has done. Reach out to him and never think for a second that it doesn’t matter. I think of all the things I wish I had said to my father and now it’s too late. Most importantly, Dad, wherever you are, I love you from the bottom of my heart and I miss you more than words can ever express.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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