How is heaven, or hell, or wherever your spirit hangs out since you drew your last reedy breath? Five years ago – less a day – I stood at your hospital bedside and you asked me to switch off the TV because you weren’t interested in watching the NFL playoffs. You positively lived for the Super Bowl, so it was then I knew for certain you were mere yards from your own end zone.
In the wee hours of the morning – January 7, 2008 – I got the call to say you’d passed. How perfectly you, to end the game on your terms – not with a showy, swaggering touchdown in front of a crowd, but instead, quietly and privately, holding the ball while the clock ran out.
Keeping it real here, we both know you were not a spiritual man, Dad. You had your own beliefs that didn’t include counting on another life in the great hereafter. I respect that. But, as one of your children who loved you beyond measure, I hope it’s okay that I still think of you with me “in spirit”, surrounding and guiding me? That thought offers up some comfort and strength. Humour me, would you, while I share one experience that gives me reason to believe?
Do you remember your umbrella? The black one with the curved wooden handle? Pragmatic man that you were, you carried it everywhere with you. Well, I have had it for the past five years and always keep it close at hand. Gotta say, it’s the Aston Martin of umbrellas: the opening mechanism is still slick and the ribs and stretchers are taut as ever. The wood on the handle is worn, years of use leaving shiny patches where we’ve both clutched it.
The amazing thing is that I still have it! I’ve lost dozens of umbrellas in my lifetime, but I still have this one. I almost always remember to take it with me but here’s the thing… if I leave it behind, it calls me back. If you can stop the eye-rolling for a sec, Dad, and allow me to share this story: a few weeks ago, I went to the library. It was raining, so I had the umbrella. I used the self-checkout, and when the transaction was complete, I started walking towards the door. Just before the exit, however, a bin of books marked “Staff picks” caught my eye. I remembered that Steve had mentioned he was in need of a good read, so I stopped to rummage through the titles. Found one I thought he might like, and turned back to check it out, too.
And there, hanging off the side of the self-checkout counter was the umbrella. Okay, here’s where it gets flaky, Dad… I believe it called me back. More poignantly, I believe you called me back. Yes, I know the umbrella is just an umbrella, and it holds no Mary Poppins’ powers. But, I feel there’s some karma at play, ensuring we stay conjoined. It’s as if when I hold it over me, I’m reminded of the hold you have over me.
On the fifth anniversary of your passing, the memories are particularly heightened, chafing at my mind, as it were. Indulge me while I convey a few of the things I admired, appreciated and loved about you:
o Your enjoyment of simple pleasures: eating a gooey grilled cheese sandwich; watching a football game from “your” chair in the den, rum n’ coke and chips within arm’s reach; diving deep into a treasured history book; playing “Ride a Cock Horse” with a beaming grandchild on your lap; gazing out the window on the Skytrain, in awe of the sprawl of your beloved home town…
o How such a brainy, academic guy could so delight in the puerile humour of Benny Hill and the slapstick comedy of The Three Stooges (nothing says “hysterical” like a ladder in the face).
o How you loved Christmas and family gatherings. I remember your last Christmas – two weeks before you passed – with a mix of heavy heart and a smile. Your triumphant arrival at the cousin’s house for Christmas Day was heralded with welcoming cheers and laughter as you announced in a thin but clear voice, “The old bugger made it!”
o How at every birthday, you always vaulted us into our next year. Which was such welcome news, as you can imagine. As if turning 49 didn’t sound “lost cause” enough, you’d proclaim, “you’re in your 50th year.” (Dad, you could really be a buzz kill.)
o Again, for such an intelligent man, how positively inept you were at all manner of home repairs and the most basic technology. The ATM baffled you, so you’d visit the “girl” at the bank instead. Mom changed the light bulbs and set the alarm clock. You used an answering machine with a cassette tape and recorded the world’s longest instructional message. You didn’t realize you could fast forward through a DVD to the “best part”, so you’d watch it from the beginning each time. I could go on. (I loved, however, how you were so unapologetic about your ineptitude in these areas!)
o That when I had an accomplishment or good news to share, I wanted to tell you first. You always let me know how proud you were of me. Parental bias notwithstanding, hearing your words of praise made my heart sing. (I miss calling you and hearing your “atta girl”.)
o That when you let go one of your trademark sneezes, it sounded like “Mogadishu!” To which your children would reply in gleeful unison, “Capital of Somalia!”
o That when sharing any arcane fact, you’d start your sentence with “as you know”. What followed was usually anything but common knowledge. Example: “As you know, the Napoleonic Code was the first modernized body of law governing France and was enacted in 1804.” (Duh.)
o Your lists! My goodness, there were scraps of paper everywhere covered in your distinctive scratches, listing in excruciating detail the day’s “things to do”. Some of the to-do’s seemed rather, well, obvious – i.e. “clean glasses”, “eat breakfast”. Just sayin’. (Lest we dwell on the irony of me using the “list device” in this letter, I move on to the final point…)
o That I could count on you to be waiting up for me, back when I was a teenager with a curfew. With three other siblings vying for your limited time and attention, I treasured our late night chats in the den, with you all to myself. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how those conversations made me feel. Special. Safe. Important.
Dad, you instilled in me the love of language, and for that, I thank you, as it’s given me an avenue for expression. Sadly, as mighty as the pen is, words can fall far short of intended meaning. I know you’re not a fan of fiction, but Stephen King – a prolific writer and a bit of a genius, really – articulates perfectly my dilemma:
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away.”
Dancing with Dad in my princess gown.
Though your life ended, our relationship continues. I hope you know how much you’re missed and loved.
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