Understanding my father

It’s been nine years since my father passed away. In some ways it seems like only last year, and in others like forever ago. It’s funny how time seems to pass quickly in some circumstances, but inches by in others. Time is a variable I doubt humanity will ever fully grasp; much as we will never fully understand or appreciate people in their time on this Earth.

Sadly, I’ve come realise that about you, Dad. You were, to a degree, an enigma to me growing up. You left early, got home late. You took the role of teacher (with me, anyway), giving me home repair skills that I have since put to use. You built my sandbox, renovated our kitchen and bedrooms, sailed the lakes, and loved a good laugh. But in all of that, I never could really see what made you tick.

Today, I think I finally get it. When I look in the mirror, I see you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my father. (Yes, still, despite the eroding effect of the passing years.) I respect the knowledge he had, the skills he taught me, and the things he did. If there was one parent whom I knew I could always rely on, though, it wasn’t him — it was (and still is) Mom. She was the one always there when I had a scrape or cut, when I had a cold, when I needed help (or needed a good talkin’ to), when I was hungry (before I learned how to make a sandwich for myself, though even then she still made lunch for me until I went to university), and made sure I did my homework. Dad always just seemed to be distant to me.

But he exerted his influence. Dad wanted control. He built things because he had more faith in his abilities over someone else’s. He fixed the cars because he could do it. He dug the hole that eventually became the walk-in basement. He wanted his neighbours to not cut the grass on Sunday (and told them as much). He hated the thought of condo because you didn’t “have your own roof”. In a true sign of doing things himself, he and I once spent the better part of a day trying to clear out a clogged pipe (that also led to the utter destruction of my jeans); the plumber who ultimately fixed it took about an hour.

That applied to his kids, too. Rule #1 in my books as a kid? Don’t piss off Dad. I didn’t know why I knew that, I just did. If I was helping him — which I did, being his effective manservant for various chores and renovations, from the age of five — I had to listen very carefully to the things he told me, otherwise I got in trouble (the depth of trouble varied depending on the transgression and/or difficulty of the task at hand). I learned things at the time that I wouldn’t fully realise until I had my own kids … and found myself doing the same things.

Dad worked hard. He poured his life into his job, and (presumably) did it well. But it took a toll on him, too. He smoked most of his life, despite a few serious attempts to quit. And he had a love for scotch (although I know some serious scotch drinkers who’d poo-poo his preferred brand and method of consumption). Dad, quite often due to exhaustion and drink, would fall asleep in the kitchen (my family’s social hub) somewhere around 9 or 10 at night — a couple of times falling off the chair. At the time, I pitied him. I don’t know why, to be honest, but I did. I didn’t recognise the reason, just the result.

Two weeks ago, I got my first glasses. I’ve gotten older, and years of staring at computer monitors have finally taken their toll. My sister’s first comment? “You look like Dad.” And I realised that, yes, I do look like Dad. And I act like Dad. In some ways, I have become my father.

And now I understand. So, in a way, this is an apology to you, Dad. This is for those years, when I know you were trying to be closer to Cathy and I, but didn’t really know how. For those years when we wondered why we were eating at 7:30 at night, and you weren’t home. For those years when I excused myself from the table as quickly as possible after dinner to avoid the smoke. For the time you wanted to take me on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyworld, and I chickened out. For that time that I whined about not wanting to take those horrible organ lessons, and you gave me the most awkward hug I’ve had — and the only one of my childhood I can remember. Because now (I think) I understand.

I could be wrong, but I’m thinking you saw yourself as the primary income-earner. And for a long time, a not-insignificant amount of that came from sales commissions. So you worked to make sure that money came in. You felt pressure from others in the neighbourhood to have high standards — it was a “Keeping Up With The Joneses” problem; you wanted your kids to have the opportunities like the others. So you worked, because that’s what you did, that’s what you knew. Hard work was what a father was supposed to do.

Grandma raised you to be who you were, which involved a certain amount of strictness and sternness (at least so far as your son was concerned, anyway). And I’m sure you felt, if not recognised, that you were even competing with Mom to be a parent in our lives. That’s not to say you didn’t try. The boat show was always an annual affair for you and I; you fixed up a small sailboat so I could ply the waters of Lake Ontario. You took us out of school one day when I was in Grade 4 or 5, and we went for a small plane ride over Toronto. You showed me how to fix a leaky faucet, build a cabinet, and fix a leaky faucet. Although you connected with Cathy later in life, you and I always seemed to be a little further apart. And I was admittedly distant (for other reasons), which didn’t help our relationship.

You felt the stress of income, the stress from trying to be a parent who wasn’t always around, the need to try be an affectionate parent but not really knowing how, the pain of rejection and betrayal from your job, and I’m pretty certain you felt you weren’t living up to your own expectations (hey, I got my distorted sense of high standards from somebody).

So, today, I look in the mirror, and I see you. And, maybe, I feel like you, too. Though I’ll never smoke, I won’t deny the desire to have a drink when I get home — I know how it reduces the pent-up feeling of stress, and I know the urge to drink until there is no feeling at all. I know I feel frustation with my kids, because my expectations are set too high for them. I, like you, want control, and I have come to hate hiring other people to do services that I’d prefer to do myself (I only wish that I had your skill, which I most certainly do not). I feel the stress of being the distant parent, the pressure of living up to others, the need to provide and the concern that I won’t deliver.

I wish I could talk to you now, now that I know. I wish I could speak to you today, to see if you and I would be closer to understanding one another. I wish I could pick your brain, to learn the little things you’d picked up over the years that you’d never told me, to laugh at the things that I’ve seen and done since becoming a parent, maybe even get some consolation over the struggles. I wish you could meet my wife, and your grandkids. I wish.

I hope I’ve turned out somewhat the way you hoped I might. I know you tried to mould me a certain way, to know certain things. If you were to look at me now, would you be proud? Accepting? Would you even tell me? Maybe not in so few words.

And Mom, lest you think that I keep Dad alone on a pedestal (and yes, also because I know you’re reading this), one more thing…

I don’t praise you enough. Not by a mere fraction of what you deserve. And for all things that I wish I could do with Dad, I haven’t done with you, despite all the opportunity and ability. Much of who I am today is because of you. You taught me more than Dad, though it’s much harder for me to identify it — you taught me before I was able to crawl, walk, or speak. You raised me to be understanding, aware, and open-minded. You gave me my ability to think critically, and used your creativity to let me learn at my own pace (“hiding” books in places you knew I tended to snoop around was a particularly smart move). You gave me my freedom, all the while encouraging the responsibility to go along with it. For this, and perhaps a million other things, I can never thank you enough.

Thank you.

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