6 years ago, I wrote of my mom’s death a day or two after she passed, and at the time talked about the difference between writing it and saying and the fact that she was gone was still so surreal. This memorial comes almost 5 months after my dad’s death and although I have scribbled some general thoughts down, writing this now is not any easier. They do say time heals and I agree that one-day it will but for now, compiling my thoughts on my dad’s death is difficult. I am conflicted. I am mad that he never seemed to listen to his kids about eating healthier or exercising more. I’m mad I didn’t have more time with him. I am happy he is suffering no more, and happy that there is no more doctors appointments and bad news and happy I don’t have to see him as he was in the last few weeks, but still mad that he is gone and mad and sad that the music has stopped.
“Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over. But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning… Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together.”
Lines from the opening stanza of a song that will forever remind me of my Father. You see, “For the Good Times” was the last song I ever heard my dad play live. It was about a month before he died and the outcome was but a fraction of what I had heard of that same song so many times before. Truth is, it almost never happened, but for the persuasion of an awesome and over the top caring PSW named Jenny. It was a Wednesday I think.
He’d always sing for his workers but lines or a phrase in reference to something he’d see, but never a full song and he would never play the guitar. But, somehow that afternoon, after telling Jenny his guitar was just downstairs, she wouldn’t let it go. “Aw, come on. Sing me a song Jimmy! I’d like that very much!” She kept saying like she was trying to get a 5 year old to eat his peas.
That coaxing happened a lot that last couple of months. Dad didn’t want to do much. Even lost his interest in endlessly watching old movies. Sleep was the only thing that excited him. That and perhaps a Pepsi.
“But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning… Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together.”
He didn’t look comfortable in the chair in the living room that day, but sat there and played just the same and sung the song the best he could. His strength had gone; memory lost but the fingers worked, almost on their own changing the cords and the verses sung week, but strength increased during the chorus as if to emphasize the all-important words:
“And make believe you love me, one more time, for the good times”
He was singing to the three of us in the room, but with a look into my eyes he was saying it to me. I think he thought that with my often-harsh tone and abrupt way of dealing with him, especially over the last months of his life, that somehow he had disappointed me. And that is perhaps the biggest struggle I have had over this last 5 months.
My dad never cured anything. He never made a million dollars. He never solved a major world problem, or contributed a fortune 500’s bottom line. He drove a truck. He worked very hard his entire life for everything he had and died with little, but he was not a disappointment to me. He had three wonderful children, “not a throw away in the bunch” he would say. He had a roof over his head and a car. A couple of boxes of old pictures and some clothing and his guitar, little of anything to show for all he did in his 82 years. But he was not a disappointment.
My dad was selfish. Stubbornly selfish in fact, but before you think that that is a negative thing, let me clarify. He loved making people smile and laugh. He loved singing songs and performing for people. He had told me that he was driven to be in the center of attention, because he was incredibly shy. He said that if he made someone laugh or smile that would calm him and he would be ok. The selfish part would be that he craved that attention and would often choose that over family functions. Doing the jam or show for others was really him doing it for just himself. And that is all right. He made people happy. He made people smile and laugh with his jokes and songs, and in the end, he made a difference in peoples lives. He died with a wealth of admiration and appreciation and a thousand songs in his head, and that may just be the greatest of riches of all.
Near the end of his life, in the quiet beautiful room Dad died in at Bethel house, I told him a bunch of times that I was proud of him and that I loved him, but could have done more to make him see for sure the difference he made in peoples lives. I could have said more or perhaps done more to show him that in my eyes he was not a disappointment at all. I could have been a better son and tried to remember to tell him how proud I was of him, at least as often as he would say it to me.
So, back to that Wednesday in October, in a living room in Caledon, for a final time, he put away his fear, he hid his pain, dug deep and mustered a voice, and for a couple of minutes, one last time, he tried to make someone smile by being happy himself playing his guitar.
“Make believe you love me, one more time, for the good times”
A particularly fond memory of my father was the trip we took last summer to see my sister and her family in Newfoundland. It had been 4 years since I saw my sister, and more than 5 since my dad had, and that thought of not being able to say a true, face-to-face goodbye for my sister troubled me. So I hatched a plan to hit the road with the girls, my sister Debbie and my father. We had a small window of time; so planning was fast. From inception to departure, I think it was 8 or 9 days.
The specific reason for taking the trip was unclear to me until maybe 1200 kilometers into it. Cats In The Cradle came on the radio, and the irony of my dad singing, all be it the wrong lyrics, relaying the sentiment of the father / son song from the 70’s about troubled relationships or perhaps lost opportunity, somehow made the trips’ purpose clear to me.
Not in Disney fashion, the story of a struggled relationship, re-kindled to a place of happy, all wrapped up in 90 minutes of laughs and tears, over coming obstacle on a sunny day road trip; but a real story of unforgiving or maybe excepting or perhaps coming to terms with the fact that it’s ok to not be good.
It’s okay that this is contrary to what would be called a great father relationship. My Dad didn’t teach me to drive or coach my little league games. He didn’t help with science fair projects or drive me to the mall to help me rent my graduation tux. But that is okay. That stuff all got done. Others filled in. But in absence, a much more important lesson actually emerged. I learned from him, what kind of father I wanted to be. I learned what it would take and what I needed to do, and I am a great father because of it. Because of him, I am the father I am.
My parents divorced when I was two, and I grew up with my sisters and mom living in the house my grandmother owned and ran like a ship. When my dads’ name came up in conversation, it was not often, dripping with sunshine and warm breezes. When I was old enough to remember things, I feared him. My twin sister tells a story of her hiding out in the school yard, in one of those large tire toys, one day that we where told my dad was coming to get us for a visit. My older sister and I apparently ran to him, but she stayed hidden because of the fear.
In my earliest memories of my dad, I must be around 7 or 8. We would go for overnight or weekend visits. I remember glimpses of things, like a trip to Marineland, or visiting my uncle’s cottage. I remember staying in a motel on highway 115 on our way to visit my aunt. “Jimmy, this is your new mom!” He would say to a waitress serving us breakfast, just to make her smile. My dad always seemed to be the center of attention. Happiest guy in the room. Always ready with a joke or a song or a line about earrings or “flirting” with ladies. There was always music and guitar playing a laughing on the part of the people around us, so the juxtaposition of those happy and somewhat fun elements, confused a young mind who’s opinions had already been painted in dislike.
My relationship with my dad was complicated until I was maybe 16 or 17. When I wanted to learn more of his life and spend more time with him. I started playing the guitar, and that gave us common ground. I would call him up and he would try to explain the chord changes over the phone. When I started to work, I got a job in a summer with him at Canada Cartage as a “helper”. It was long and hard hours and in just a few short months I realized, I didn’t want to drive a truck for a living. He wouldn’t have let me, even if I did.
In my twenties, with a girlfriend and mobility, we would often drop in on him and go to bingo or a movie. When I lived with Debbie and Guy for a couple of years, I saw him almost every week for the Tuesday Guitar lesson, touted as a chance for dad to teach my brother in-law and I some songs, but really it was just a chance to get together, have dinner and jam.
But after he retired he moved up north and things changed. The visits where limited to select family functions and the occasional road trip. With a young family and the demands of dance and other kid activities and jobs and such, perhaps the visits where not as frequent as they should have been. We would try to talk on the phone, but even those once weekly calls, also slowed to more of a when we needed kind of thing.
There were lots of medical issues over the last 10 years of his life, so in that time, many of the long trips ended up to be hanging out in hospitals for this or that. In fact I have at least 3 different hospitals in my contact list, as a result of over night stays for any number of things. Dad was diagnosed as borderline diabetic in 2006, had a stroke in 2008, parts of his lung removed with cancer in 2009, skin cancer in 2010 and liver cancer in 2011, gallbladder issues in around there too, and also heart arrhythmia with a pacemaker installed for good measure.
One specific doctors’ appointment I remember put it all into perspective for me. It was the last time we saw a specialist in fact, the “last hope” doctor to approve the specialized radiation treatment that could possibly slow or stop the tumor growth on his liver. As he was reviewing the huge file he said, “Let me get this straight. A stroke, cancer 3 times, diabetes, heart arrhythmia, gallbladder and liver issues? That about it?” He was mulling it over and shaking his head a bit and finally said, “Any one of these things on their own could have already killed you. I think you should just live every day from this point forward as a gift and enjoy what time you have left.” Clarity and stark reality check that was not lost on me.
Today on a beach, by a lake, not to far from where we spread my aunt Mae’s ashes we drew to a close officially the life of my Father by committing his ashes to the earth and water. In the cold crisp sun of an April sky, with a light wind, I untapped the plastic bag, walked to the middle of an icy pier and let him fly. A fitting cap to two days of sharing and laughing and family, friends and music the way he would have liked.
Last night more than 90 people came together to sing songs and listen to music and tell stories of a man who touched them all. My dad was celebrated and appreciated and in a final way, thanked for all he gave to so many. He would have been the loudest in the room, had he been there in person, and would have laughed and held court by correcting some of the facts as he saw and making us all laugh with a story or three about his life.
Thanks to all who came out and thanks to all who have sent message to me or my sisters with stories about my Father. If you have something to share, please email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading and have a great and safe week,