“A father holds his children’s hands for a while, but he holds their hearts forever.” — Unknown
Jordy and I were in the County for the wedding of our friends Geoff Mosley and Sandra Dorenberg.
After the ceremony everyone was outside Cressy United Church, a small brown brink country church surrounded by a cemetery, with a view of the Bay of Quinte. My first real job was in that cemetery, mowing the lawn and using the whipper snipper around the graves, including my aunt Betty’s who passed when I was four, but I still recall her kindness and remember when we heard of her death. And the grave of my dad’s parents, whom I never met. On the other side of my grandparent’s tombstone my parent’s names had already been carved—it’s good to plan ahead.
It was a beautiful day, everyone was in good spirits, the way they are at weddings, visiting with people they only see at weddings and funerals.
Then Dad collapsed.
Dad wasn’t the fainting type. It doesn’t matter how hot it was, he was a farmer. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t feeling well, it was someone’s wedding, it wouldn’t be polite to steal attention away like that. Dad was a rock of stability. I can’t recall him having so much as a cold. And I can’t even recall him ever being hungover, which is not to say the man didn’t drink. He was my dad. He was indestructible. And he was out cold on the ground.
I remember people gathering around, shouting in a panicked sort of way. Cell phones were out. People were trying to get dad on his feet. I had St. John Ambulance first-aid training. I knew that wasn’t right. I stood there thinking, No, don’t get him up. Loosen his tie, loosen his belt, undo the top buttons on his shirt and elevate his feet. Give him space to breath. But everyone seemed so sure about what they were saying and doing, I wasn’t sure of anything. So, I just stood there as people pushed me out of the way so they could help.
I’m good under pressure. When things got crazy behind the bar or when I was serving, I lite up. When I directed the news in my television course at Loyalist, at the point when many crumbled, that’s when I turned on. When my friend George had his arm cut open in a snowmobile accident, I knew what to do. When my dinner set the oven on fire in Ireland, all remanded calm. When Jordy spun out on the 401, I talked her though it and we made it safely to the side of the road. I’m a little ADHD, until I’m forced to focus, my mind wanders all over the damned place.
But that day was different.
That day I just stood there, scared and uncertain.
I sort of remember an ambulance. I recall Cindy, Cole’s wife, putting her arms around me, and Jordy standing off to the side, I don’t think she knew what to do either. Though, I didn’t understand that at the time.
In the emergency room the nurse asked my mom if there was anything else they needed to know.
Mom looked at me, and then back at the nurse.
“Mom,” I said. “If there’s anything else, you need to tell them.”
Quietly, to the nurse, Mom said, “He has cancer.”
I’m sure there were a lot more questions after that but the next moment I can recall I was outside of the hospital, at the side, crying my eyes out and trying to get myself together so I could re-enter and be supportive. Jordy was there with me, I can’t recall if she held me or if I was too wound up and confused.
It’s blurry after that. I think they kept Dad in overnight because I recall going upstreet to buy him a shirt and some other things. But I’m not sure. And I don’t really want to dig deeper.
Mom and Dad hadn’t told me because they didn’t want me to worry, or for me to not keep living my life and pursuing my goals. I understand that, in a way, now. I still wish they’d said something, though. One of my goals was to be able to be there for them, after-all.
As Dad wished we kept going on as close to normal as we could. I called more and went down more. I’d bring treats from Toronto. Dad loved Portuguese tarts. He had a massive sweet tooth. We’d play cards. He’d usually win. I’d accuse him of cheating when he did, but it was all done in fun.
Sometimes, I would do work around the farm. Dad liked it when I made use of things that were lying around the barn and barnyard. Whether it be the bedroom set for the apartment or turning old milk barrels into bar stools—so that everyone would have a place to sit when our cousins came up from Milwaukee.
Dad and I butted heads a great deal when I was a teen. I don’t think we really became friends until after I came back from Ireland. But some people never become friends with their parents, so I’m grateful.
One time, after I cleaned out the garage, he brought me a beer and we talked about family and the farm. He told me how he used to use a hand crank to open the door on the lean-to part of the garage, to park his Model A Ford in there. The door had since been changed but part of the apparatus was still there, that’s what started the conversation.
Other times, when Jordy was with me, she and I and Mom and Dad would go to dinner or to fish fries, corn roasts, or other small town events.
Dad and I never talked about his cancer, or him leaving us, directly. Though he’d show me things like how to prime water pump, which brought the water in from the well, so I could do it when he was gone. I already knew how, but said nothing because I liked him teaching me. I also had him walk me through how he made his popcorn since his was the best. The trick is to put the butter on first, so that the salt sticks to it, and to toss it well both when you add the butter and then again when you add the salt. Now, I think of Dad every time I make popcorn, which is a lot.
His eventual departure was something that was always in the background. I tried to savour and store the moments the best I could. I can still see Mom and Dad standing in the driveway, outside the house, waving good-bye as Jordy and I pulled out of the driveway. They did it every time we left.
With more personal things I’d let him know through notes written in cards. As difficult as it is for me to write about feelings, it’s a damned sight easier than talking about them. One time he called me after I had sent him a particularly emotional note and there was an awkwardness on the phone, both of us waiting for the other say something more than small talk, neither of us did.
I was torn between wanting to be there more for him and Mom, and wanting to work harder so that he could see me achieve some degree of success. Dad wanted what all loving parents want, to see their children happy. And to just spend quality time with them.
Years later I was in the World’s Biggest Bookstore and they had copies of Chill on the shelf facing forward. My first thought was, I wish Dad could be here to see this. I wondered what he’d think of a book that was dedicated to him, written by his youngest son, on the shelves of the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Canada’s largest city. I don’t think he could even have imagined that. I hadn’t.
Still, I worked hard toward some further degree of success. To stay focused a certain amount of denial was helpful. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst took on a much deeper meaning. Jordy went into a church, light a candle and prayed for Dad. The gesture meant a great deal.
I sometimes think that anyone who mocks the necessity of prayer has never been in a situation where there was nothing else you can do. Or they haven’t been able to acknowledge their own helplessness in the face of a power which is beyond all human control. A force that reminds us of just how small and powerless we are. It’s a way of doing something when you feel the need to do something but you know that there’s nothing that can be done. We bow so that we do not break.
Dad was a rock of stability. I can never remember him being sick. He was indestructible. Somehow, it was all going to be all right. So we move forward, like everyone else, looking for green pastures as we walked through the valley in the shadow of death.