When my father passed away on Sunday, August 9th at the age of 79, a little over two weeks after entering hospital, he was fully ready. He'd had a great life, lived it his way, and wasn't robbed or cheated of anything. He loved my sister and me and we loved him. Over the last few days, I was grateful for the chance to tell him loudly, numerous times, that I loved him; that he's been the best Dad I could ask for. I take solace in that because we probably didn't say it in the past as much as we should have. But we always knew.
Of course, at the end, it's impossible to truly say everything that needs saying. How do you even begin to articulate your gratitude for someone responsible for your very existence? How do you say thank you enough times for a childhood spilling over with happy memories? The moment he left us on Sunday, those memories started rolling in, wave after wave. While they're crushing me at this moment, they do seem to be diligently trying to fill this large new void. I believe this to be a designed healing effect; the same way blood behaves as it rushes to close an open wound.
As it is for many fathers and their children, so many memories of my Dad orbit around our mutual love of sports. It was the core of my childhood. Growing up in Richmond, now part of Ottawa, one of my earliest joys was hockey and hammering pucks into a simple, crudely-built net. It was regulation-size and made out of wood and chicken wire but it did the job and I loved it. To me, it was a real NHL net, probably taken right from the Montreal Forum. Whether I was shooting at it or protecting it, I was now in the NHL.
And my Dad made it just for me.
Our Field of Dreams was our back yard, having a catch with a Nerf football. My Dad would take the extra time to mow the lawn side-to-side so the wheel marks would resemble lines on a football field. He'd pretend to be Canadian football quarterback great Ron Lancaster while throwing to the skinny little kid running spectacular pass routes.
We spent hundreds of hours together watching NFL, CFL and NHL games on TV. We bonded over the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who never seemed to win. We playfully bickered over the Montreal Canadiens, who never seemed to lose. And we both grew to really dislike the Leafs (I choose to believe Dad had some kind of mystical influence on the Blue Team's misfortunes this week).
His daily arrival home from work – he was Pensions Director for the Treasury Board of Canada – would mean the occasional reception of a bucket of KFC, hockey cards or stickers and, best of all, Ottawa Rough Rider tickets. Today, in going through his belongings, my sister handed me a box marked, “To my favourite radio guy.” It contained hockey cards, ticket stubs and other souvenirs he'd saved for me over the years.
Dad's house is three blocks from the Richmond Arena and I walked that route constantly, either in full hockey gear and boots - heading to hockey practice or a game - or with my dad to watch junior hockey on Saturday nights. I loved that tradition – not to mention the canteen french fries he'd buy us at intermission. After games, on our cold walk home, my Dad would deliver insightful post-game commentary while I'd chime in with gems like, “Do you have any Twizzlers left?” Naturally, we'd always step lively to catch what was left of Hockey Night in Canada. Certainly, my ability to talk sports would improve over time. If there's ever been anything I’ve said on a radio show or podcast that you liked, you can thank my dad.
When my wife Linda and I became parents, my plan for being a father was to try and replicate my Dad's formula. In the case of my daughter, I'm pretty sure it worked as she and I successfully bonded over playing and watching sports. She's now a happy, thriving young woman, entering her final year of university. My Dad was so proud of her achievements and fiercely loved both his grandkids.
Dad was a homebody if there ever was one but he helped, he taught, he listened, he joked, he built, he cheered, he sang, he played, he gave. My friends always felt welcome in our home. He spoiled us on our birthdays and he was Santa on steroids at Christmas. He spent time with us, built us a pool, a backyard rink, took us to the cottage, hiking in the Adirondacks, public swimming, cross-country skiing and shuttling us to all our various other sports and hobbies.
My dad rarely missed any of my minor hockey games and always kept it in perspective. In one of the first games he did miss (I was finally old enough to drive myself to hockey), I suffered a concussion at the Almonte arena. As I was being helped off the ice, I instinctively looked up to the stands for the guy who always took care of me. It was sad and disappointing to not see him in the place he usually sat; that I would have to deal with all of this without him.
His passing this week left me with a similar kind of feeling, only far more severe; his absence now permanent.
I don't know what follows now, but I do hope he can still be a spectator; checking in for a bit, watching his two grandkids blossom. But, tangibly, he's now going to miss the rest of my game.
When elderly loved ones pass, we tend to throw life's cliches around. We say it's the nature of things, the grand design or the circle of life. But it's still so sad and so hard to accept. We always want our parents to be with us. I'm blessed to have had him both as my dad and my friend - and I'm really going to miss him.
I hope someday we can throw the ball around again.