Saturday, June 18, 2011

Happy Father's Day Dad

June 17th, 2011

Thank you for coming here today to celebrate Jim—our Dad, my Mom’s husband of more than forty years, a “Papa”—your friend.
Dad loved a joke, a smile, a good political debate, but most of all he loved his family.
He had an air of peace about him at all times, even in the last stages of his illness. He simply exuded dignity and calm.

Dad started his life in Collingwood, Ontario, the small town just north of Toronto on Georgian Bay, the youngest of three children, a ‘late’ baby in an English-Irish household. Being the adventurous soul that he was it took only until his nineteenth birthday for him to decide he wanted to see more of his beloved country. He hitchhiked out west and arrived in British Columbia, to teach on a reserve with Native Canadian children. He taught music, one of his life’s passions.
He met our mother here, she from an Ottawa convent, and he, a rookie teacher, on his own for the first time. He proved irresistibly charming, and they returned to Ontario—my mother leaving the convent, and then their marriage soon after.

Life in Toronto, after the birth of my sister and I, revolved around family, and around his office, Phoenix Personnel. My mother stayed home with Lisa and I, and our father regaled us with stories of his office high-jinx.
My father was a known practical joker, and he arranged, for a favourite target, um, I mean colleague, who had the habit of slamming the phone down with gusto after a conversation with a client had not gone well, to loosen the nuts and bolts holding the phone together, so that the next time such a conversation took place and his co-worker slammed the phone down, the entire phone fell apart, much to the chagrin of his coworker, and the hilarity of the rest of the office.

One of our earliest childhood memoires, among many, involved a speech that my father had written, for a headhunter conference he was both attending and speaking at. He called the speech “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”, an analogy on the eighties job market, which he coined “The Employed, the Unemployed, and the Underemployed.” By the time came for my Dad to deliver the speech, he had practiced so many times in the living room of our townhouse that we had all practically memorized it and could quote random passages at will. He had also taped himself saying the speech so he could play it back and critique his performance, which we found hilarious.

I mentioned before about my father’s love of music, and he loved all kinds. He was a consummate piano player, obliging guests late at night when my parents had parties, playing many of the James Bond themes at the piano, for which he owned original sheet music for, purchased in the sixties. He didn’t just play the piano when we had guests though. He also played for just the four of us as a family, after a Saturday night spaghetti dinner, Beatles songs were the favourite, and he sang as he played. We grew up thinking that the song “And I Love Her” was about us.

Dad also loved political news, current events, and reading, both the newspapers and news magazines, like Macleans, a subscription that my sister renewed, automatically each Father’s Day.
Rather than watch our fallen troops make their journey home on the tv news, he regularly made the trip to the overpass at Harwood Avenue in Ajax, to watch, in respectful silence, with the families of the soldiers, their procession home on the Highway of Heroes.
Canada was our dad’s “home and native land” in every sense of the word, he had numerous tee-shirts with the Maple leaf on them and he wore them proudly. A flag flew from our house, and Canada Day was a big deal. At the last federal election in April, despite his advanced illness and having been released from a six-week hospital stay only weeks before, we still managed to get him out to the advance polls to cast his vote, something he impressed upon us as our civic duty, otherwise phrased as “Well, If you don’t cast your vote, you have no right to complain about what they’re doing”.
He was not by any means, though, a ‘serious’ person as he enjoyed a joke and laughter way too much to take things that our government was doing to impede upon his way of life. Law abiding to a point, his only real rebellion was in his special way of ‘recycling’ stamps off of envelopes that he would re-use.

Dad’s other love was the outdoors, especially when exploring it with our family dog, black lab, Shadow, who came to our family as a father’s day gift to my dad in June of 1995. She was definitely my dad’s dog, and he walked her up to three times a day, taking her to local conservation areas so she could swim, never worrying about the mess a wet Labrador made of his car. She was my father’s faithful companion, and when we put her down Easter weekend of 2006, after a short, devastating illness, it was one of rare times I saw my father cry.

With our Dad, childhood was anything but dull. Once the VCR came out and movies could be rented, this was an activity he really enjoyed, bringing us with him to the video store to pick out videos, his favourites being horror films. I don’t’ think there are too many seven or eight year olds today who have seen The Exorcist. One afternoon, as the three of us, my Dad, sister, and myself, sat, rapt with attention , watching yet another age-inappropriate movie, my mother, who was doing the laundry in the next room and noticed the shrieking coming from the tv set (and from my sister and I) repeatedly questioned our Dad about what we watching. He pretended not to hear her. She asked one more time and he finally blurted out “It’s called Invitation to Hell, Paulette, Invitation to Hell, OK??”
My mother was not too impressed by this, but simply shook her head.

Two teenage daughters in the house was not easy, and my father caved early and had a second phone line installed. He also bought us a car to avoid the constant chafeurring about town.

For my 21st birthday my sister and I had the idea that we were going to go down to the States, Sandusky Ohio to be specific, to go to the Cedar Point amusement park (and to enjoy the bars). My father immediately went to CAA, got us maps for the road, driving directions, and hotel discounts. I think he and my mother were so happy to have a weekend where we weren’t coming in and out at all hours, they were glad to help. But really, I’m not sure if parents today would allow something like this, but to me, it illustrated our father’s trust in us, both to find our own way and make the right decisions. He had also once told me that his own parents believed in never forbidding something—it was the quickest way to get a child to do exactly that. Gentle guidance was more his parenting style, suggestive rather than dictative.

The last fourteen months proved daunting for all of us. After surviving a massive heart attack in 1996, and a bike accident, we felt our Dad was invincible and would live forever.
The sore throat that nagged him began in March of last year, nagging, and refusing to go away. By Easter I could see the beginnings of what looked like a lump on the side of his neck. My mother’s birthday dinner last March was a painful reminder of his yet-undiagnosed illness—he declined to come with us, saying he was fine, just not feeling like eating dinner. It was out of character for him to turn down a family meal out.
His diagnosis was a tremendous shock for us all, and the summer of 2010 loomed before us—more than eight weeks, Monday to Friday, of radiation and chemotherapy, downtown, at Princess Margaret Hospital. The Canadian Cancer Society had a program that drove patients to and from the hospital each day, and he rode in the van with the driver and other patients, his keen desire to socialize endearing him to everyone who rode with him.
One of the things that struck me most about his condition and all the difficulties surrounding it was that he never complained. He didn’t complain when it finally came down to the fact that he could no longer eat, despite all the treatment. The loss of his voice was particularly cruel for a person who enjoyed talking and communicating so much.

The final weeks, after the tracheostomy that saved his life, in a most barbaric fashion, were a whirlwind. After six weeks in the Oshawa hospital, he was finally released into “home care” which was where he wanted to be. This is only possible if there is a person in the home who can be the ‘informal’ caregiver, and this person was my Mother. Tireless, unselfish, and giving, there could not have been a better person to take care of my dad. His hospital bed was on the second floor of the house and up until Friday of last week, he was still mobile and able to come downstairs and sit with us while we told him stories of our lives, observed the miserable spring weather, and that each of us was given the time to have our own special conversations with my Dad, as we were expert lip-readers by this time (my sister has a particular gift for this).

I’ve had many conversations with people over the last few months about weighing the merit of ‘going slow’ or ‘fast’. Fast has its own special heartbreak, the no-goodbye being one. Slow, especially with this disease, has its heartbreak too. The suffering, for one. The endless medicines, the side-effects, the decline, so marked, as the days go by. That feeling of the clock ticking, louder with each second going by.

After a battle such as this one, there cannot help but be some relief; my Dad’s stoic suffering was nothing short of heroic, and although my father was not overly religious, he was extremely spiritual and he drew on that spirituality to help him cope. A lot of our last talks revolved around spirit, and our thought that the butterflies he got in his stomach when pondering the end of his life were evidence of spirit.

Dad, I know that you are now at peace, in a safe place, with your parents and Shadow, and this place is pain-free.
Thank you for all of your dedication not only as a father but as a person. You never felt the need for anger or hatred, you had a simple acceptance of all that happened, and I take a page out of your book on faith and on the value of placing yourself in the hands of God.
Thank you. I love you.

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