When I think of my dad it’s hard to pick any one image that would suit him. He was many things in his persona, a chameleon in a way, mercurial in his moods and wit.
Anyone who knew him socially could tell you that he was a charmer with a very quick wit and a dark sense of humour; he would come out with these comments that on the surface may seem very sharp-edged and yet were just so incredibly funny that those listening would either be appalled or would be crying in laughter. A lot of how you responded depended on just how quick you were in the uptake and how good a sense of humour you had. A testament to his fine Irish roots I guess.
There seemed to be a fair bit of crying related to my dad. Not just laughter, but frustration or anger. This happens in any person’s life one has to agree; there just was a little more of it with him around. It’s something you understood or you distanced yourself from him, it was all a person could do because that was simply who he was.
It’s taken me fifteen years to put pen to paper and write an essay about him. I was going to put a commemoration in the newspaper on the fifteenth anniversary of his death but when the time came I just couldn’t. It brought forth a lot of issues that are probably best left alone. So I didn’t. More importantly though was the fact that one small rectangle of expensive words in a newspaper isn’t nearly enough room to say what I’d like to say. Oh I could have put a soppy poem instead or a canned message that gets the point across but that would be a waste because if anything else, as a tribute to my dad it is probably the last thing he’d like to see in print anyway. So there we have it.
My dad was raised in Lowertown, the Irish Catholic end of an Anglo-Irish capital that had the more well-to-do Protestants in one part and the work-a-day live by the moment Irish/French/Italian/maybe Native mostly Catholic other side.
A child of the Great Depression he was the second oldest of five children who lived with his mother, father, very Irish grandmother and her very cranky parrot. His dad was a trolley driver for the OTC, now called OC Transpo. My dad loved to regale us with stories of this time, some of the real, some of them questionably real, some of them just him playing a joke on us. And that was fine by me because I loved his stories regardless. He was a good story-teller with a lovely voice, a voice if I think about it I can still hear in my ear all these years later.
He was in the choir as a boy. His dad would have him sing for his friends I remember him telling me, and later on he would tell me stories of singing in bars in faraway places like Washington or Rome. He said he would walk down the street in Rome in the evening and sometimes the people in the street would join in with him, a band of strangers singing in the wee hours with the howling street cats and very probably people shouting out their windows to be quiet. This could have been one of his fanciful stories but having met some of his friends who knew him back then in that time and place they say it’s true so I believe it. Knowing him, yes it probably is.
My dad loved to sing, and he loved it when I sang with him. There’s people who said he sang off-key but he didn’t with me so I guess it could be that when he had a bit too much to drink he’d lose it, I don’t know. Singing was one of his passions, that much I do know, and I know that one of his greatest disappointments near the end of his life was when the throat cancer robbed him of his much of the strength of his voice. He told me one time then that if he couldn’t sing, he didn’t want to live. That made me so sad to hear and I told him he should practice talking – talk to the plants, talk to cat, read stuff out loud, do anything like that to help get it back, the radiation damaged things but maybe it could be fixed but he didn’t like to hear himself like this so he didn’t.
His favorite song was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. It was his theme song and certainly a very appropriate one for such an individualistic person. He was independent, maddeningly so often times, and I admired him for that.
To this day I wish I could have just one small pinch more of his individualism; I’d be a full-time writer and student if I did. I got some of my talent from him, that much I do know. He was a good story-teller and singer but he was also a very good artist. When he drew his sketches they made me wish I could just sit down and sketch something like that. So I practiced and eventually did learn to do that. He painted a few paintings and I wish I knew where they were, gone to time I guess, though he never did have the nerve to try to sell any.
It saddened me that he didn’t have the courage to do that, and this loss to the world is to a very big degree what has made me go and try to sell short stories and books and paintings. I’ve gone ahead regardless even though my book sales are pitiful and the paintings that have gone on show have never sold. That’s alright, to me, I don’t care I just want the world to see and if they get something out of it great, if not, that’s fine too. My dad lived on a more fragile edge emotionally than I do though so I can see how the disappointment of not doing well in something he loved and that meant so much to him would have been too much to bear.
My dad was incredibly bright and he had street-smarts learned from his days in Lowertown. He was a page-boy in Parliament when he was a teenager, and he left home at a young age to go work in Churchill Manitoba for a while. He had many funny stories of walking the streets at night with lanterns ever vigilant of the polar bears, and had a girlfriend that inspired another story that I won’t repeat because I don’t know if it’s true or not. He was definitely a charmer though and he blended in well with people of all ages and social strata, so anything is possible really when you look at his stories. Was he a liar? I think more often he embellished the truth, because as I have gotten to know some of his friends over the years there was an element of truth in pretty much every story he told. And that’s good enough for me.
His ability to quickly pick up language and to fit in with wherever he was made him a good candidate for foreign service and that’s exactly what he did for many years. He lived in Washington and Rome and Geneva. He has so many great stories of those times that I couldn’t possibly retell them all here, though one story is undeniable and that is that he met my mom in Rome and they married and had two children. My sister was born back at home, and I was born in Switzerland.
I wish that my parents had stayed in the foreign service because imagine things we would have experienced! However, it was a time in their lives that family was getting older, important people were getting sick and dying and they decided it was better for everyone if they stopped those wandering ways and stayed in headquarters. That was a good idea in some senses, however for my dad he lost that life that suited him so well, where he truly shined.
Things weren’t easy growing up. My dad was restless and we moved apartments many times all over the city. I went to something like eight different schools and for a very shy girl all this moving meant I didn’t have many friends. Fortunately I did always manage to have at least one very close friend and I took a lot of my alone time to live in my imagination. I wrote elaborate stories in my head and when I was old enough, I put them to paper, and sometimes I’d win awards.
My dad at the time was out a lot, and he loved to entertain when he was home so I got to hear stories from his worldly friends and I especially liked when my dad and his best friend would cook food from the countries they had been to.
My mom had a good job and that made up mostly for the lack of focus my dad had. She would travel, bring one of us with her (which I loved), and the one left behind would be looked after by my dad, or a friend or a family member. When it was my dad he would often take us for a drive and we’d set off for somewhere and end up somewhere else.
I remember going on a trip that was supposed to be to the Mill of Kintail which he liked to visit and somehow we managed to wind up in New York state. We couldn’t do that now certainly but I still wonder how we got across the border without ever stopping. If I can say anything about life with dad, it was never boring. We lived a roller coaster life, one of highs and lows and we never knew from one day to the next what the moment would hold.
I look a lot like my dad, who looked a lot like people in his family. My mom’s side came from the other side of the tracks, the upper crust side, and they were blonde Anglo-Irish as my aunt used to describe them. He and I had that little bond from our skinny bodied, dark-haired and fair complexioned countenances and that was fine by me. I used to get people stopping me in the street when I was a kid and they’d say, “Oh! Are you Nelson’s daughter?”
I would be on a bus or just walking down the street when they’d do that. It’s been many years now that I’ve been stopped in that way and a small part of me wishes just once that someone would do that again, but I’m thinking that like him, many of these people are gone from this world now. Fortunately I work with people who worked with him and we do reminisce sometimes. I like it when people do that. He went far too young at aged 63, but on the other hand it does afford me this little bit of holding on to his living memory for that much longer.
As we grew older the roller coaster ride with my dad got much wilder and there were some very dark times too. People turned away from us at some points, I had friends whose parents wouldn’t let them come over. I had friends whose parents let me stay there more often than perhaps I should for my sake I think, and as my teenage years began there were police and hospitals involved. At the time it was shameful and scary – we learned he had something called manic depression and there were pills he took and then didn’t, and treatments that must have been terrifying for him. In the early 70’s such a thing was hushed up; mental illness was much more a keep-it-in-the-closet thing than it is now.
Part of why I haven’t written an essay about him until now was this; I don’t want to diminish who he was because in the whole of it, he was a pretty great guy. I loved him dearly and miss him terribly though there were days I have to say I hated him and the things he would do. That was his illness that did those bad things though and it is in the bringing to light of that that I wanted to share this fact here.
Things devolved to the point that I ran away and was brought back; I was constantly in trouble, acting out, lost in a whirlwind of uncertainty. Still, I survived and what’s more I think it’s made me a stronger person. It took many years to work out all the emotions but I have and I have learned skills that have helped me in other ways, most notably for being able to deal with very difficult people and situations and to live a walking-on-eggshells kind of existence. I am adaptable, and I think that it is my ability to find the good in whatever horror story that is presented to me that has made me the moderate success that I am today. I could have mired myself in this and gone off the deep end but I haven’t. My dad almost did, but being the survivor he was he didn’t. In the end he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, took a couple of crappy jobs that led to him getting a decent job and his life settled down, albeit on his own.
Living on his own was the best thing for him really, and he admitted it. As much as he loved people the responsibility sometimes was just too much and being on his own he was able to cope fairly well. After the family broke up for good when I 15 my dad tried to keep in touch with me. I was angry at everyone and really just wanted to be out on my own by that point, but one day it came to a head.
He’d been told I was seen smoking at bus stop during school hours and he laid down the law with me and told me I was going to be punished. Now what that punishment was going to be I don’t know because he wasn’t living with us, but that was the tipping point for me. I shouted back at him, “You’re not living with us, you haven’t acted like a father with me and you’re not going to start now! You have a choice, you can be my friend or you can just forget it!”
My dad to his credit didn’t respond back in kind. He said yes, I was right. He wasn’t much of a father, and it probably wasn’t the time to start now. He would love to be my friend, if I’d let him. I said yes, and from that point on he never did try to tell me what to do. Instead he listened, and I listened; we did things together, and when we had nobody, we hung out together. We had mutual friends, and it was through him that I met my ex-husband. In typical dad-style, he told me one time, “You have to meet this guy, he’s a scientist, you’ll like him and you’re the only one I know who can f*cking understand what he’s talking about.” I still laugh at the memory of that because it’s true, science was and still is one of my abiding interests and is still something I’m studying in university.
My dad and I were best friends. I can truly say that. We’d cry on each others’ shoulders. We’d drink together, laugh together, do absolutely nothing together, lean on each other and advise each other. We stood up for one another, even when it was a hard thing to do. I remember one night we were having a glass of wine after work in a local bar and some man beside me started hitting on me, bothering me. Nothing I said could get rid of this fellow so my dad, who had been talking to someone else and overheard what was happening put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Hey, what are saying to my girlfriend?” The guy just gave a sneer and said to me, “Right, this is your boyfriend?” I said yes, and my dad said, “See? Now get lost.” And he did. You just have to love a quick thinking person like that.
We looked out for one another. When his illness took a turn for the worst I’d be there at the hospital in the dead of night talking with psychiatrists, and when my life took down turns he’d be there for me in the depth of the evening listening to my latest tales of woe. There were days when it seemed all we had were each other and that was fine for us.
My dad mellowed as he got older and as time went by his illness did calm down as well. He was doing okay, and it was around this time that I married that man he’d introduced me to who was also a close friend of his, and we moved to Mississauga and had a child. Things were pleasant and for what was probably the first time in my life, pretty much what could be called normal.
My dad had the chance to retire at 60 and he took it. He looked forward to reading and to doing his painting, spending time with friends and no pressures. There were pressures because he didn’t have quite as much money as he used to, but he was still doing fine when he asked me one day what to do because his family doctor was away; the prescription for antibiotics just wasn’t working after the third go around and his throat was bothering him. I was going to be there on business in few days so I told him we’ll see what’s up when I got there and if it was really bad to go to the hospital.
He met me for dinner at a restaurant near his apartment and my hotel; he was having trouble swallowing and complained of a swollen gland. I felt it – it wasn’t like any swollen gland I’d ever known; it was soft and didn’t move. He looked thinner than usual and choked when he swallowed. It scared me but I did my best to be calm and told him to please just have soup and liquids and he had to get to a doctor, this was something that wasn’t going to go away on its own.
My dad loved cooking and eating exotic food but more than that he loved his cigarettes and his scotch. The phone call he gave me a few days later confirmed my worst fears. His doctor took one look and said “this looks ominous” and immediately scheduled him for an examination by an oncologist. My dad had cancer.
There would rounds of radiation therapy – the thing that broke his voice – and surgery. Throughout it all he was a fighter, determined not to give in to this demon that had killed his parents. In the meantime I had a small daughter and was desperately trying to get an assignment or something that would bring me home. People told me I was crazy to try, how was I going to manage that? But try I did because my dad loved his apartment and Ottawa and refused to come live with me; sadly I wasn’t able to do that.
Looking back on it now it’s probably better I didn’t for I would have stayed and there would be no son who was born a year after my dad died, and my sister would never had mended their relationship. You could say it was fated that I stay where I was however hard it was at the time.
He had a remission and for a while it looked like things were going to get better. Cancer is very cruel though, because after remission it often comes back with a vengeance and so it was with him. It had spread. His only hope was a visit to a specialist in Toronto so he came to stay with me for a couple of weeks.
I took him to Sunnybrook Hospital, a place now closed, but at the time it was an old and decidedly scary place to be. In the waiting room for one of his appointments I had my little daughter with me and one woman who was obviously very ill kept watching us, thoroughly enjoying my daughter’s happy chatter. She said a few words to her and then an alarmed look crossed her face and she leaned over to me and asked, “You’re not here for her are you?” I told her no, we’re here for her grandfather, and as a total relief swept over here, she said, “Good. You have a lovely daughter.” I do. My dad thought the world of his little granddaughter and I am so very glad he lived long enough to spend time with her.
My dad had to come back for an operation in a few weeks so he went home, despite my desperate pleas he stay. In the meantime I was trying my best to be strong for him, as I had been all along.
In the beginning of this horrible journey he told me that he was getting fed up with the long faces and the somber talk he was getting. He told me, please, just be myself, make him laugh. He needed the laughter and some semblance of normalcy. I was dying inside from the worry but I told him that certainly I’d do that, how was he ever to get better if people are all being sad all the time?
Well this got me in trouble with others; nobody understood what I was doing. My husband thought I wasn’t showing enough concern; others wondered about my mental stability and suggested to my husband that I get mental help, how could I be joking at a time like this? I could because I am my dad’s daughter, and because that was what he wanted me to do. Were I in the same situation, you know what? I wouldn’t want the long faces either.
I stuck it out, regardless of the long discussions several people had with me on my seeming lack of understanding at the gravity of the situation. Understood I did – very well – I had planned to be a doctor when I was a kid and I certainly looked at all the medical literature I could find on his cancer and I knew the prognosis was not very good at all. So like my dad, as much as I hoped he would be one of the lucky ones, I didn’t want what was likely to be his last few months or weeks or days to be mired in sadness, I wanted it to be light. I told people there’d be time enough to cry after he’s gone, right now we want to laugh. I know my dad appreciated me for that and from my physical distance through most of this, it was the best that I could do.
The last time he visited he had an operation that was to remove additional tumours in his neck and one lung. I brought him to Sunnybrook to be admitted and it was very hard for me to be calm, and I knew he was scared too. By this time he weighted about 90 pounds, and the pre-admission exam confirmed that. We had one particularly officious nurse who was snapping at him to do this, do that, and more than once demanded he provide her with a sample. He was getting fed up with her asking him for it and went into the washroom but there was no sample bottle and he told her that. She snapped back at him, “Well I’ll get you a bottle then!” To which he replied, “If you’re bringing me a bottle, there better be scotch in it!”
She shot him a terrible glare and we both burst out laughing. That was my dad, and though I’d been reluctant to leave him alone overnight I felt better knowing that when they kicked me out, he was going to be just fine, at least for that evening.
He had his operation and it went well. The frankenstinean line of clips and stitches on his neck and shoulder told the true story when I saw him next. Though the doctor was optimistic, I could see that this experience had taken the wind out of his sails. He came home with me for a few days until he was well enough to travel, and against my pleadings, he did go home.
The last time we saw him he was so thin and small in his wheelchair, and as he waiting to be taken to board his plane he hugged me and told me he loved me. He said to my husband a simple, “see you” and with the look in his eyes we knew he knew it might not be.
He had had enough, and he told his doctors no more. He was put in palliative care at home, and that week he phoned and asked me to come see him. I had told him if he needed me all he had to do is call and that weekend he wanted me there. My husband said next weekend we could go, it would be Easter and foolishly I phoned my dad back and told him sorry, I couldn’t this weekend. It was the last conversation we ever had. That Saturday night he passed away, in his apartment, my sister on hand.
There’s very few things I regret in this life and this will always be one of them. He knew he was dying and instead of just saying to my husband, “the heck with that I’m going,” I didn’t. I know my dad would tell me not to worry about it but I do feel awful that this very important time I let him down. I have learned from it though and I did learn to stand my ground better; I just wish I could erase that last moment.
There weren’t many “I wish I could haves” with my dad though and for that I am grateful. My dad used to love to hear me sing and I would play the guitar and sing for him; I made recordings every year for a few years of my songs and other songs I liked that I would sing. He always told me that he wished I would record things of me singing acappela, because my guitar playing is not the greatest and I promised him I would. He especially liked when I sang Anne Murray’s song “I Needed You”, and it was hearing that song again after many years that led me to writing this essay. I had planned to put an acapella song on my tape after I moved to Mississauga but work and being a mother of a young baby made it impossible to do another tape at all, there just wasn’t the time or the quiet to record it.
When he died this omission was something that bothered me, and when we were cleaning up his apartment mention was made of my tapes and why I even did them; his many owls were left on a counter to be taken by people or thrown out – the tapes and all of the owls I swooped up and brought home with me because only my husband and I in that time and place knew the significance of these things and I was so glad I did get there before all those crazy owls were thrown out.
The tapes inspired me to sing acapella for him one last time at his memorial service. It wasn’t going to be for a few weeks so it gave me time to do something really well, and I decided that with his love of Italian (he could speak Italian fairly well and did on occasion) that I would sing Ave Maria in Italian. I had a tape of the Neville Brothers singing it and I thought with the words and the Neville Brothers to practice with I could do it.
The problem was that I knew the tape was in the basement last I saw it, but in what box? I tore everything apart and simply couldn’t find it. I had taken everything out of every box, put them all back in and closed them; it just wasn’t there. I sat on the stairs and cried. I said to the silence, “Dad, if you’re out there and you want me to do this, please help me find this tape, I can’t do it without it.”
Several minutes later I lit up a cigarette, wiped my eyes and much to my amazement, there on top of the box in front of me was the tape. I knew then what I know now: in some way, shape or form, my dad is still with me. I learned the song and a few days before the funeral taped me singing it to bring with me to play on a tape recorder in case I got so choked up that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t need the tape; I sang probably better than I ever have in my life. People walking by stopped and stood to listen. I could feel his presence so strongly and I know he was happy.
Some months later I had a dream and he was there, standing in a doorway. He told me that he was fine, he was happy and not to worry about him. I was so happy, he seemed like his normal self, healthy and strong and yet when I looked at his hands he still had that Dupuytren’s Contracture where his last three digits had curled in towards his palms. I said to him, “Dad, if you’re okay and you’re healthy, why don’t you fix your hands?” He laughed and I laughed, and once again from whatever faraway plane he is on now, we got to laugh again.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, and many many times it is achingly hard; like today for instance. I can have good friends and family, but nothing can fill the void that was his spot except for memories.
As I was writing this my inner critic said “Eep, you can’t say that!” Then I remembered the one thing that stood for my dad his entire life and that was that he did what he wanted to do regardless of what other people said, he just did it. He liked my writing and I’m sure he’d understand that regardless of whatever toes I may step on by putting this out in the ether, it is my story. Other people who knew him have their own stories and they are free to write it if they so choose, and that’s fine with me.
For whatever else, I am Nelson’s daughter.
If you’d like to hear the back up tape of Ave Maria I made, here it is: http://www.aerendel.ca/cathisplace/Ave_Maria.mp3
Catherine M. Harris (c) June 20, 2010
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