It only took about a month. They had just returned from a vacation in France and had visited us in Ottawa the month before. Dad was slowing down a bit, a result of a long onset of Parkinson’s, but they were enjoying their retirement, traveling all over, visiting friends, seeing new places. They were at Joel and Vicky’s place on the weekend, playing with the grandchildren when Doctor Joel noticed Dad’s eyes were a bit yellow. He insisted they not wait until Monday and went to the hospital to get checked out right away. A poke, a prod, a scan or two. That’s all it took to hand down a death sentence. Cancer. Not one of the “nice” ones where you cut it out or zap it or get chemo and maybe live another 5 years or even go into remission. Nope. Stage 4 pancreatic with spots on the liver showing that it was already running rampant inside him, destroying his organs, killing him quietly as a thief in the night. No symptoms until it’s too late.
Cancer kills, it’s true, but so do heart attacks, car accidents and bears. It isn’t so much the dying as the reducing. It reduces us and shrinks us and turns us into something we wouldn’t recognize, robbing us of our dignity, taking away from us everything that made us who we were, long before it finishes the job and puts us out of our misery. My father was a strong, proud man. Generous to a fault and as kind as anyone you could ever meet and he didn’t deserve to go the way he did. Almost all of us know of someone who went like this so there’s no need for details but I can tell you my fiery burning hatred of cancer knows no bounds. I’m so grateful for the medical technology and hospital staff who were at least able to make his passing somewhat more comfortable.
That was about a month ago. Incredibly fast by most standards but it still seemed like an awfully long time. I don’t really want to think about it too much and would rather remember who he was before that rotten day. I can’t imagine how he must have felt, getting a diagnosis like that. It just reinforces my dream of making to my 70s or 80s before dying in a tragic nude hang-gliding accident. That’s a much better story don’t you think?
My dad was a pretty neat guy. I think you grow up thinking your family is normal or average and it takes years and a lot of reflection before you start to notice the strange and unique things about your upbringing. It’s not always easy to sum someone up in one word but if I had to, I might describe my dad as ‘busy’. He was always doing something. He was a maker, a builder, a fixer, a tinkerer, a designer, a hacker, or any other number of things that describe someone who likes to do things with his hands. He built a boat. Most people never build anything and he didn’t just build a wee row boat. No, he built a 34 foot ferro-cement sailboat, a “floating red sidewalk” as the joke went, big enough to sail the whole family around the Great Lakes every summer and even down to the Bahamas and back one year. No half measures. Go big or go home. All around the house you see evidence of his creativity. Home made furniture. “Buying furniture? Pfft…that’s a suckers game. I can build something way better.” And he could. Joel and I had the coolest beds growing up, designed and built by him with hidden storage, multiple levels, desks. His grandchildren still play with a home made toy garage that he built for me. I don’t even know for sure what all he built since we just took all this stuff for granted. The coffee tables that he used to build with a super clever padded foot rest are still to this day one of my favorite things. Everyone puts their feet up on the table, why not design the table around it? Genius!
As long as I can remember he was always doing something. Out in the garage fixing cars or welding parts for the boat. Down at the shipyard working on the boat. Cleaning the boat. Stocking the boat. Man, he loved that boat. He worked so hard on it, not just for himself but for us. I don’t know if I ever really thanked him as much as I should have for giving us that experience. I’ve been sailing since I was 5 years old and I owe it all to him. We had the best summer vacations, mostly sailing with the occasional road trip thrown in. It’s funny but I was often jealous of friends because they got to stay in town for the summer because their parents weren’t teachers who could travel that much. Stupid right? I had no idea how good I had it. I remember thinking a few years back that if I had ever had kids I would always feel bad that I couldn’t provide the same quality of childhood that my parents gave us.
He was a good guy. People liked him. I remember an ex girlfriend once describing him as having ‘smiling eyes’. He always seemed to make friends wherever he went. My mother and he seemed to be able to keep friends too, over long periods of time and long distances. Even 30 years later, they are still friends with people that we met, sometimes only briefly, during our cruise to the Bahamas. He wasn’t a push-over or a complete pussy-cat by any means though. He was stubborn and when he was in charge, there was no confusion about it. On the boat, he was the captain and everyone had best step to it when the captain started giving orders. Things needed to be ship-shape, stowed away, battened down and seaworthy. Even at home he liked things clean and orderly. Unfortunately, with children who are sometimes less than tidy and who had a threshold for dirt and disorder much higher than his, it sometimes drove him a little bit crazy. Joel and I used to joke about it being “Dad’s time of the month” when he would suddenly not be able to take it any more and finally snap. “Okay, Joel, you clean your room, this garbage needs to go out, Kris, your room is disgusting and the lawn needs mowing, Joy, this carpet is a mess and you’ve got books and papers all over the couch again…”, he would bark, running through the huge list in his head of all the messes his filthy offspring had produced. We would roll our eyes and mutter and complain but there was no arguing with him so we would get down to it and get the job done, calming him down until the next time our messiness would overwhelm him.
I have a million stories and no time to write them all but I can share a few that kind of illustrate his character. Like that time I smashed his car up. I was 17 and cut someone off and got the rear end of our super sexy 1975 Mercury Meteor all banged up. I’m kidding about the sexy part. It was an enormous green land boat that went through gas like an Irishman goes through Guinness but it got us around and I got plenty of play in the back seat so it was way better than walking. In any event, it wasn’t a write-off and it needed to be fixed but would my dad go to a body shop? Oh heck no. “You smashed it, you’re gonna help fix it.” The drivers side rear quarter panel was crunched up pretty good and we weren’t able to hammer it out so Dad, hacker that he was, got out the sheet metal, bondo and pop-rivet gun. We cut and banged and bent and riveted and sanded and spray painted the holy heck out of that car until we got it looking sort of like new. Well, not really. It was actually pretty ugly but that was okay because Dad didn’t care about that sort of thing NEARLY as much as a teenage boy did. I’m sure he got a great deal of pleasure knowing that my punishment was enhanced by the embarrassment of having to drive around in Frankencar. It was a teaching moment and a lesson I’ll never forget. Working beside my dad, learning that everything can be fixed and that doing things for yourself was its own reward.
Self sufficiency. It’s part of the Mennonite creed that he grew up with and a large part of what he passed down to me. When I’m doing renovations, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc., people sometimes ask me, “Where did you learn to do that?” The answer, to some extent, is always, “My dad.” Not to say that he taught me all these things directly or specifically, but he taught me the life philosophy of learning. Of figuring it out. Of trying something to see if it works. Of taking something apart and putting it back together. Of all the things I got from my dad, that has to stand out as the thing that has taken me furthest. Duct tape. WD-40. If it don’t work, use a bigger hammer. If it breaks it needed replacing anyway.
When I look through pictures of him, it always seems like he’s surrounded by family and friends. I think that was the most important thing in his life and I believe that much of his hard work was an expression of his love. I think some of us grow up thinking our fathers are tough taskmasters, long on discipline, short on praise and perhaps not appreciate the love behind that desire for their children to have strong values and discipline. When I was 18 he drove me to Waterloo to school. We stayed in the Heidelburg in a little Mennonite town just outside Waterloo. We sat in a little German pub and shared our first beer together and bonded, perhaps for the first time, as men. I’ll never forget the moment he dropped me off at my residence because that was the first time I ever remember seeing my father cry. I’m sitting here unable to find the words for what changed for me at that moment but somehow I knew that our relationship would never be the same and I knew how much he truly loved me. I hope that he knew how much I loved him. I hope he knew how much of him lives on in me. I hope he’s proud of me.