Twenty years is a generation. I know this because my son who was born eighteen years ago is a man. He could have a child himself. You haven’t met him because he was born after you passed away, and I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to know him because there is an awful lot of you in him, I see that more and more as he grows older. He has a touch of your dark sense of humour, and like you, people love him for that.
I could say I don’t know where the time has gone but I’d be lying, I do. In that time my little girl became a teen, then a university student, and now is working as nurse and about to married. I had a son who is finishing up high school. He lives with his dad not far from me. There’s a long story about how he came to be there but towards the end of high school when he was living with me things got a little out of hand shall we say, and it’s hard to change when the world around you hasn’t. So we changed his world and he’s happier for it I think.
Dad, I moved three times since you passed. I moved out with the kids once in Mississauga, then came home two years later. I wonder if that owl that showed in the tree in front of my window as I was packing to go back to Ottawa finally was you. I remember looking in that owl’s eyes and how impressed I was when it stretched out its wings. I don’t know how long the owl stayed there watching me because I had things to do and later when I looked back it had gone. For all your world travels, oh how you loved Ottawa.
I bought a small house in a small town outside of Ottawa and we stayed there for ten years. During that time daughter spent most of her time with her dad and while I know in no uncertain terms how some family felt about giving her that choice, there’s a big part of me that says you would have been proud that I respected her enough as person to give her it. You always were all about people being their own selves, it’s something you did so very well, and something that drove some people absolutely bonkers.
I also think you’d be proud when I left my job after a difficult year and a mistaken job switch. That I went back to work some months later I’m not sure what you would think – that I took it for help moving to the Maritimes, I guess you’d understand but I also suspect that you’d tell me I’m a little nuts for giving up my freedom to do that. You know what dad? You’re probably right, but I like where I’m living now and that’s good. Freedom will bless me again someday when it does, I’ll stay free.
I wonder what you’d say about my partner who has been with me the same length of time I was married and we’re still together. There’s things about him you’d love and some things I don’t know if you’d rather say lighten up than understand but that’s okay, I’m sure you’d respect the fact that he knows his own limits and doesn’t impose them on others. Would he have been a part of the crowd we had back in the 80’s who all hung out together in the Glebe? Maybe. He would have fit in well with that eclectic group of musicians, writers, painters and singers. So yeah, I do think you’d like him and I do think he’d have had fun with us. I remember all those late nights in peoples’ apartments singing and talking and playing instruments if we had them and laughing. Oh my God how we laughed. How about that motley band of us in that six a.m. march down Second Avenue singing, two people carrying a laundry basket between them filled with what? Food? Booze? Probably both. The people dressed up and on their way to church looking askance at us was priceless. The party was over and we were all heading back home but those people didn’t know that and it made us laugh all the harder.
By those days you’d long ago stopped being a dad and were a friend. There was a reason for that that you and I both know. There was a big fight when I was 15 and you were living on Kilborne Ave. You tried to impose rules that made no sense (at least to me) and given that they were rules you wouldn’t have made when you were living still with us, I bristled. I remember the ultimatum: be my friend or be my father but if you’re going to be a father now, I’m out this door. You told me you’d love to be my friend and I think a weight was lifted from your shoulders. You made a good dad, just not a good father if you think of father in terms of setting the rules and attending meetings and things.
You admitted to me later in a night when you were staying with me prior to treatment at Sunnybrook Hospital that you really weren’t a good father and were so glad I chose to be your friend. Being authoritarian wasn’t a mantle you wore well; being a friend that was another story. You were loved by many people literally all over world. That 6 a.m. singing down the street was the same thing you’d done years before with your buddies in Rome. And with your buddies in Washington after visiting the jazz clubs. No doubt you did that with one eye out for the polar bears when you were in Churchill, Manitoba.
More than anything, you were really good at accepting people for who they were. I hope I learned that lesson well and I think I did if you look at the people I’ve been close to; there’s no one social status, or education level or culture. It’s always been about who you are inside for me. I couldn’t care less if you’re a PhD or homeless and you didn’t either. You’d be proud of your grandchildren because they’re a whole lot that way too.
When I think of you I think of these vignettes. Chasing after an Easter hat that blew off my head while we walked to church one windy Sunday when I was three or so; singing duets of songs with you; your pretending to be my partner when we were at a local watering hole and some guy wouldn’t leave me alone – putting your arm around my shoulders and telling the guy to shove off I’m your girlfriend – he did; telling me I had to meet a scientist friend of yours because I’m the only one you knew who could effing understand him (talking about his work); at the hospital in Toronto telling a very cranky nurse who demanded you give her a sample bottle – you told her if she’s bringing him a bottle there better be scotch in it, and her face, oh my God her face – I still laugh thinking of that; the many nights just us two talking about everything, your life and your adventures, triumphs and regrets. Angry. I see you angry sometimes and that could be a little scary but with you it was just words. Helping you see doctors for meetings and when you came home one night and fell in the driveway, cold and bleeding and sore. I see you sad and lonely when I’d have to take you in to emergency when being bipolar got the better of you.
Most of all though, in my mind I hear your voice. Soft and mellifluous. Laughing. Singing. When you read a story out loud: The Raven by Edgar Alan Poe and Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee are two you loved to read to me and I never tired of hearing you do it. To this day when I read those poems, it’s your voice I hear.
Dad, you were a good artist and a wonderful storyteller. Throughout your life I tried to get you to do works for public consumption but you steadfastly refused. You never told me exactly why but I think it’s because you didn’t want the disappointment. So you didn’t. This loss to the world is something I took as a lesson to always try anyway, and so I do. To me, if one person appreciates something I’ve done it’s worth it.
In some ways you were a little broken but you know, we’re all broken. And for that I love you all the more.
To my dad, in memory of his passing, April 9, 1995.
Catherine M. Harris (c) 2015