June 15, 2022
-by Francene Gillis
What could have been.
The first time you held me, tiny in your bear paws, you vowed always to be there – to be my solid anchor, mentor, and path to the vast world beyond. Tender, you held me as if I were made of glass, hands together and palms open, staring down with such wondrous intensity. That very first time you kissed my wrinkled forehead, I felt an electric current pulse through me, connecting me to something bigger, a new way of existence. It’s been a while.
“Say, Dada. Dada.” Your tongue searches for the right spot to make the D sound.
You – a huge, big man tip toe over to my crib, grinning and clowning around like Ronald MacDonald, making silly noises and coaching me to blurt, “Dada, Dada,” hoping I repeat it long before I ever speak, “Momma.” Some kind of love play between you – my parents, raising me until I am old enough to leave high school, until I can do things on my own. Eighteen years thereabouts. No concept of time back then. I was happy as long as you changed my diapers, filled my belly, gave me lots and lots of attention, made silly faces.
You aren't inside the door two seconds before I jump up and down, anticipating your arms lifting me. Love radiates from compassionate eyes, a place of pride, and awe, and safety. You would move mountains for me as you reach out powerful arms, lift me playfully high, firm in your arms, promising to protect and never drop me.
I was a needy little thing, demanding boss of the household, howling at night, waking at ungodly hours, soiling myself. And that foul whiff in the middle of the supermarket, post office, or playground was thanks to me. Took awhile to learn social graces, but you had me walking and talking, odour free, early enough that it left no lasting scars, an entire whole, wide world out there to explore. My daddy was not afraid to change diapers.
Awkward at first, your bear paws turned the pages of my favourite books, as you rocked me on your lap, became the frightened three little pigs and scary big bad wolf. You protected me. Taught me how to stand up to bullies and look after myself. Lessons that came in handy when I started school. We read Winnie the Pooh, with his hundreds of didactic lessons…“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an adventure is going to happen. You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” – A.A. Milne.
You loved catching my nose between your fingers. “I got your nose,” you’d boom, then laugh as I tried to find it. When older, I took yours. You taught me lessons and provided sage advice as we coloured – seek always your rainbows and mountains, have purpose – follow your dreams and passions, take what you are good at and go for it, no rugged mountain too tall to climb. Hold your head high when people look at you. Be ashamed of nothing, unless acting like an ass. And he would add, “If you live to be 100, I want to live to be a 100 minus one day, so I never have to live without you.” Winnie the Pooh.
You were proud of me when I peed in the big toilet bowl. Both you and Mom screamed in delight, praised my efforts, told everyone of my major accomplishment. I never realized it was one of the first signs of growing independence, which took off as my feisty personality emerged. When I didn’t get my way at three and a half, I threatened to run away, packed my suitcase full of food and my toys, the important things in life.
I stomped my feet, fell on my belly on my bed, kicked and yelled, but it did no good. Shaking, I screamed into my pillow, grunting and growling, and crying, “Stop it, Daddy. Stop it! I’m mad at you, Daddy. I don’t want to see you anymore. I do not love you anymore!” I sobbed and howled, kicked, and squeezed that pillow like the world was ending, then threw it. Waited. Kicked. “I’m mad at you Daddy!” Then exhausted from sobbing and weeping, I fell asleep.
When my tirade was over, you forgave me, as you always did, picked me up, wiped me off, held me close, said you would always love me, forever and a day, no matter what. We cried into each other’s shoulder and I felt like Hercules or Atlas was protecting me.
Those so-big items shrank and shifted as the years passed too quickly. Big day starting grade primary. After lots and lots of counselling and direction, you got off work to take photographs and watch me prance to the big yellow school bus, the bus driver welcoming me with an open umbrella smile, a chorus of screaming kids in the background, trying to be heard over the yellow monster’s grumbling and growling engine. When I turned to look back, sad and forlorn on those high steps, lollipop tears rolled down our cheeks as we both sensed the world changing – too fast. Almost ran back, but you urged me on, reassuring, repeating everything would be alright. I believed you.
I wanted to learn everything you had to teach, for you were wise, knew all the answers in the universe, shared your wisdom with gentle understanding. Such a humble, giving man. I discovered you liked sports, especially watching the Maple Leafs, playing golf in the summer with your buddies, ski-dooing in winter, rambling Cape Breton side roadways and paths on the four wheeler in all seasons. A favourite pastime as I grew older – just me and my dad touring the scenic Cape Breton roadways and sideways, gentle breezes kissing our face as the scorching sun smiled down on us and we gunned her to beat the deer and black flies.
You most always had time for me; even when tired from a long, hard day of work, providing for me and my siblings. On weekends, early morning hours you carted me around to cold arenas, coaching me when I fell, cheering me on, scheduling your hours around me, and Mom, and the other kiddies.
We knew you loved us, every minute on the hour, every hour of the day, pride bursting in your chest at the mention of your chickadees, running and scurrying in all directions. We could be a roaring handful, or blissful, pain in the ass; you never wavered in your original vow to us. Even when stressed you kept yourself in check.
Our biggest test came when I turned 18, dressed up in formals and went to senior prom…I was quite the looker you said, and then months later when I strolled across that ominous stage to receive my graduation certificate after 12 tumultuous years, you were there. Swear I saw tears in your eyes, rolling down your crumbling face. I wanted you to be proud of me. Took a few years to realize – not something I had to earn. Sorry for the disagreements and grief caused, not the easiest kid to raise. We both had our faults and vices, but worked with, not against.
I found my vocation, and my partner, and moved off on my own, sowing my own oats, with the many lessons learned and messages tucked to overflowing in my deep pockets. You were always a phone call or text away. Life was good as I applied your insights to my own babies, learned new ones.
And then life dramatically changed, Dad. It became too much for you. Your body started giving out after all those years of caring, making sure we were the best versions of ourselves. Pain and sickness wear the body down until it gains resilience. Even willpower cannot win all battles. You fought every sore bone, aching muscle, sickening symptom with integrity and grace, and even then you were present for your grandbabies, fishing for each of their noses, playing “Pat-a-cake! Pat-a-cake! Baker Man.” You even learned about Minions, and Paw Patrol.
My friend does not like Father’s Day. Her dad struggles with booze, lives the sorry, tired life of an alcoholic, is abusive, separated from her mom. She wishes she had what I had. She doesn't know the love of a father. Harsh realization – not all children live in loving homes. Some fathers love their children, but do not know how to show it. She loves him, hates his abuse, is working on forgiveness. Makes me realize how good I had it.
Before it’s too late, Dad, I want to tell you. Say the words that need to be said, too long left unspoken in a web of life, entangling us in busyness. Grey hairs, wrinkles, sickness take us down. I love you, Dad, always and forever, and a day.
Now on Father’s Day I remember you with fondness, share your favourite sayings and pearls of wisdom, visit your grave, play your favourite songs, cheer your favourite sports teams, while looking at old pictures, sharing memories with family and close friends. We toast you and mom now fertilizing daisies, your presence and spirit in our own babies, their facial expressions, habits, the way they hold their cup, curiously tilt their head, bang the table when upset.
At the end, one of the lucky ones, I got to hold your hand, look into your rich, sagacious eyes. You knew me, knew us all. I vowed never to forget you – to hold you in the palm of my hand, and in my heart – the man, the role model, my father.
Dad, thank you for being there for me. For being the man I most admire. Happy Father’s Day, 2022. As I kissed your wrinkled forehead for the last time, I felt an electric current pulse through me, connecting me to something bigger, a new way of existence.
With undying love,