It has been one year since my father died. Not everything is resolved, not everything has healed, not everything seems normal.
My Dad’s name was Richard and he was a Boilermaker by trade. He died of a Heart Attack at the ripe old age of 53 in his mother’s basement bedroom. He took a nap after lunch and when his sister, my Aunt, called to wake him up he didnt respond. She went downstairs to blast him, as he was a heavy sleeper, and found him lying on the bed. She pounded on his chest until her arms were tired but he was gone. My father had died.
I would like to say that his death came as a great shock, and while it most definitely was one to him, it most definitely was not unexpected to those closest to him.
Rick was the life of the party. Always down for a good time and a laugh, my Dad found a way not to take life too seriously.
School was never his thing, he quit in the 10th grade and found work right away. It was the 70’s, I guess you could do that a little easier back then. If he was in school today they would have diagnosed him with a learning disability from an early age and put him in a specialized program to deal with it, but that shit didnt fly back then so he was just another underachiever. I want to be clear here, he wasnt a dumb guy. He just wasnt cut out for school considering his predilection for boyish trouble and his learning challenges.
He did go back though as an adult. He went to get his tickets and earned his trade. Its not something he talked about or showed off, but when the subject comes up my Mother never fails to mention just how difficult it was for him and how proud both of my Grandfathers were of his accomplishment. For all the things we have in common, in many ways my Father and I were very different. School, for one, came very easy for me. I dont think I put in more than 50% effort and coasted through onto Graduate School. My Dad always told me, “Go to school so you dont have to work hard like I do. You dont want to have to break your back just to make money.”
At least in that respect I’ve done what my Dad wanted me to do. I promise that I havent put in a hard day’s work since I graduated from University.
My parents marriage lasted 15 year or so. What? This isnt some fairy tale. Shit happens.
I was 12 when they divorced, my brother was 10, and my sister was 6. We all dealt with it in our own ways but it was probably hardest on my sister being that she was so young. I understood what was going on but the why remained a mystery until I was an adult. The fact is that people grow apart. My Dad was a weekend partier, my mom wanted him to slow down. He was never big on confrontations and it was just easier for him to leave. As I write that it seems like a petty thing to dissolve a family unit over, but there was obviously more to it that my Mom has no obligation to tell me about. Them’s the breaks.
My Dad didnt abandon us or anything horrible. We saw him every other weekend and lived with him for 4 weeks in the summer. Not long after he divorced my Mom he was married to his new wife Donna. This is the way it was from the time I was 12 until I was almost 18. Just shy of me graduating from Highschool I got into an argument with my Mom and subsequently moved in with my Dad.
There were some pretty great benefits to this situation. My Dad’s outlook on parenting an 18 year old was relaxed to say the least. I mean some parents will take their kids to the hospital at the first sign of a sore throat, my Dad’s cure for a nasty cold was half a bottle of Captain Morgan (The other Half was for Flu season).
It wasnt really until I lived with my Dad though that I got to see what kind of a man he was. He was damned funny. He was quick. If you gave him an opening he would skewer you with a zinger that would make your sides hurt. His comedic timing was great. I was complaining about my daughter not sleeping well at night (she was only a few months old) one day. This is what he told me.
You know you can tell the smart kids from the dumb ones from an early age. The dumb ones just sleep forever, they dont care who holds them, not a care in the world. The smart ones never sleep. They always want to know what’s happening. They wake up and know their people arent near by. You? You were never asleep. Always up and looking around.
Your brother just slept for ages…
At his funeral I cant begin to tell me how many times I was told that his trademark laugh was missed already. It’s true. I miss that laugh. When I’m at my Grandma’s house and somebody says something really funny I still expect to hear it. I cant help but look around the room and feel my heart sink because he isnt there.
Dad gave back.
I want to say my Dad was generous, but that seems like something you would say about some wealthy philanthropist. My Dad wasnt generous, he gave back. He looked out for friends, he gave back to the community, he just enjoyed doing little things for the people around him. He was much more involved in the community when I was younger. I know he volunteered a lot of time to community sports. I remember being up past dark with him as he flooded the Rink. It was cold and boring, but I was the only one complaining. He taught me how to skate and coached my first team. He was heavily involved with the Edmonton North Stars Hockey program too. To be honest, I think he stopped shortly after I broke his heart and told him I would no longer be playing hockey because practices were boring and strenuous. Actually what I really said was that the fronts of my knees were sweaty and that was unnatural. Of course that didnt end his sports involvement, he was just scaling back. He still coached my sister’s baseball team and helped with many others. But all of that was what I knew before I lived with him.
Once I moved in with my Dad what I really saw was that he just couldnt say no to somebody in need. His willingness to lend a helping hand never turned off. The way he answered the bell when the community league asked if he could flood the Rink was the way he answered the bell when someone he knew fell on tough times. He knew it wasnt his responsibility to fix their problems but he wouldnt turn them away. We joked that he would always come home with strays. And he did! A new guy came to the job site who didnt have a place to stay? No problem. We have a room for you here, at least for a week until you find some place. Your wife kicked you out because you were drinking too much? Sober up here for a while and try to patch things up later, we’ve got pinball in the garage. When I think back on who my father was as a man I cant help but be reminded of all the people he lent a kind hand to.
Dad just couldnt say “No”. It wasnt in his nature. He needed to help. It wasnt right to let somebody suffer when you could do something about it.
Unfortunately there is a horrible downside to the inability to say “No”. For all the good it was responsible for it was also responsible for its equal share of bad. He grew up in the 70’s and became a man in the early 80’s. He partied like a young man well past the age where you could pass it off as just a normal thing to do on the weekends. He never missed work or drank in the mornings, but he was a weekend binger. He smoked, drank, and ate fatty foods. I wouldnt exactly say he treated his body like a temple, unless it was a temple to Dionysus.
Roughly around the time I moved out he started hanging around a new group of people. These werent just the regular hard living people one grows up around as the son of a Boilermaker. These guys were different. Slimier. Slowly but surely my Dad’s inability to say no around these guys led him down the path of more dangerous substances than he had partaken in before. It pains me to say it but I lost my father long before his Heart failed him.
I know that my family wanted to gloss over this dark part of my father’s life at his funeral. It was something we all knew but chose not to talk about. That’s a desire I understood and ultimately went with, but a year later I dont have to omit this. Substance abuse ripped his life to shreds the way it does to thousands of others. He was lost from us for a long time. For years I dreaded the late night phone call that would let me know he died in some stranger’s home doing god knows what. To anybody else who has gone through this, and there are many who have, you know the kind of pain it is to look at someone you’ve known your whole life and see a complete stranger. To anybody who has not gone through that, I hope you never have to.
My Dad and his wife separated. She took full advantage of his state of mind and got him to sign over his half of their house and she quickly sold it, moving to Lac La Biche afterwards. I didnt see her for 6 years, not until I tracked her down to let her know there would be a funeral. Being still legally married to my father she was needed for various signatures in the funeral process. It also meant she was legally entitled to his Life Insurance, something she had told my family to our faces she would make sure to be returned to Richard’s children. She is somewhere in Northern Alberta $50,000 richer and still trying to get his pension money. Stay Classy, Lady
As I said before, the story is no Disney fairy tale but I’m happy to say it didnt end in some stranger’s home. After losing his house and his wife my Dad landed softly in my Grandmother’s basement. She, much like him, would never allow for suffering if she could do something about it. Not when family was involved. He stayed there for the final segment of his life, some 5-6 years.
It wasnt right away, and there were a great many sleepless nights, but in the last 6 months of his life there seemed to be a real change in my Dad. You could see him again. I mean the man that I grew up with and loved was there again. He had begun to put it all back together and make positive changes to his lifestyle. I could trust him to watch my infant daughter if I wanted to take my Wife out to dinner and a movie. He was dependable again. The helping hand he wanted to be and always had been before.
Still, it was too little too late in terms of the damage he had done to his body. The years of partying and hard work had done a number on his heart and one afternoon he went down for a little nap and it just gave out on him. He died in his sleep, on his bed, with family near by, and on the upswing in life. He was 53.
I was the only one of us kids who still lived in Edmonton. My sister lives in California and my brother was in Calgary. I eventually tracked my brother down, who was out with his fiancé that night and without his own cell phone, and told him what happened. He was in Edmonton within hours. I dont know what I would have done without him, he was an absolute rock. My sister was driving up to her home when I let her know what happened. She always had a special bond with Dad. I felt totally powerless to comfort her as she cried on the other end of a telephone. My Mother, his ex-wife #1, was in Israel on a trip she had been looking forward to her whole adult life. She had been there only a few days when I told her that the father of her children had passed away. Her and my Step-father immediately scuttled their plans and hopped the next air bus back to Edmonton.
You hear stories about siblings fighting when it comes to planning the funerals and making arrangements for their deceased parents, but we had a simple harmony in all of our decisions. I dont think we would ever be able to agree so much, so easily, on too many other things. I am so thankful for that. I know my Father would have been proud of the way we stuck together.
It has been a year now, the shortest year of my life. I buried my father, got married, adopted my step-son, and experienced every major holiday & family event in the Calendar. The entire year was a year of firsts, all of them “my first X without Dad”. I thought I was getting used to this as my new normal, but just this past weekend I was rattled. My sister received a message on her phone saying her voicemail was full. As she went through it all to make room she found one from my Dad that she had no idea was there. As she played it for me, the message itself of no great significance, the sound of his voice brought me right back to where I was a year ago.
I miss Dad so much. His sense of humour was always up lifting, the simple acts of kindness were always so welcome and timely, but just being unable to talk about hockey games with him has been difficult.
I know the responsibility for his personal and health problems fell almost solely on him but he was a good man with a big heart, though not a healthy one.
I love you Dad.