Nothing can prepare you for the news that your father is gone. It doesn’t matter if it’s expected, the inevitable conclusion of a long terminal illness, or sudden, like the turn of a page. You are spending the afternoon in the snow with your friends when someone comes to you and tells you to be brave. And then they lead you to a room where your mother is sitting, her face the picture of devastation. There is no easy way to tell you, but she tries to ease into it as smoothly as she can – mindful of the fragile heart of an eleven-year-old boy. The fateful words come. “I’m afraid he died.” The rest of the moment is lost in a torrent of sudden tears wailed into her arms. It can’t be, you think in the spaces between the sobs. Not him. Not my dad.
That boy was me, twenty-five years ago this afternoon. More than any other day, February 12th, 1987 has shaped who I have become, because it was the day I lost my best friend in the world, the man I admired above all others. He was everything I ever wanted to be, a legacy to which I still aspire, and if I live another sixty years and achieve half of what he did I can leave this life content with how I’ve used my precious time on this little rock. Was he a famous man, an influential man, a man of letters or worldwide renown? Google his name if you want; you won’t get any hits. But that doesn’t matter to me. My father remains the ideal of what it means to be a man. Without his guidance this past quarter-century I have looked to other mentors from time to time and each has come up a distant second (and occasionally further back even than that) through no fault of their own. They’re just not and will never be my father. Growing up without your dad is a bit like trying to canoe on your own against a heavy wind. Without him in the stern guiding you with his steady paddle, you’re often blown far off course and will struggle to find your way back – perhaps never.
My father never judged me. He never forced me in a direction I didn’t want to go. When I was abjectly miserable following my first-ever hockey practice, humiliated by kids who were bigger and better at it, he told me I didn’t have to go back. And yet he wasn’t a coddler or a helicopter father. In the junior soccer league in which I played, it was something of a running joke that it was customary for the coach’s son to win the Most Valuable Player Award every year – predictable nepotism from showbiz dads convinced their kid was the next Beckham (or Pele, if we’re using a decade-appropriate reference). But not the year my dad coached my team. He wasn’t going to give me something I hadn’t earned. I got Most Improved Player – because despite my total lack of athletic skill, I worked incredibly hard, suffering skinned knees and bruised shins, for him. (Most Injured Player would have been more apt.) Making him proud was more than enough for me. An interesting aside to this story is, that year our team lost every single game except the three my father wasn’t able to attend. My teammates begged him not to come to the championships. He did regardless – and we won the whole blessed thing. I still have the trophy.
Dad taught me baseball, he taught me to ski, he taught me to love the Beatles. Where other kids recited “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” I sang “Norwegian Wood” to perplexed relatives and he beamed. I laughed at his inability to decipher song lyrics and the comical nonsense words he came up with instead. I watched my cousin tear up on her sixteenth birthday as she listened to the playlist of 50’s jukebox classics he had assembled for her big day. I watched his delight at the smile on my face as I tore open the newest box of space Lego. I watched him shrug off with a smile the time I embarrassed him in front of our entire church congregation. He had a rare capability to spread joy, and he did so whenever the opportunity arose. He could befriend complete strangers in minutes. You could not walk down the main street of our home town with him without running into someone he knew. And you always got the sense that everyone he did know, whether casually or intimately, cared deeply about him as well. He had that effect on people. When I was struggling with bullies or simply trying to figure out my place in the world, his arm around my shoulder assured me that everything was going to be okay, because he had my back. No matter how dark the night, the voice of my father was the light. One of his last gifts to me was in the early stages of my figuring out that I wanted to write. On weekends, or in the summer, he’d take me to his office and park me in front of the old Xerox computer with its floppy discs the size of pizza boxes and encourage me to type and just dream.
The last time I saw him, he wasn’t feeling well. He’d taken the morning off and was still in bed as I got ready to head off to an overnight stay with my weekly enrichment class at a nature park a few hours north of us. I went into the bedroom to say goodbye, never imagining this would be our last moment together. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said I would see him in a few days. When I saw him those few days later he was lying silent and cold on a table in the funeral home. And I still expected him to open his eyes and look at me and smile, and tell me that it would be all right. It felt like we had so much left to do together. The Blue Jays were going to be starting a new season in a few months and there was a new Bond movie coming out in July that he’d promised me he’d take me to see. Wake up, Dad. I still need you.
For twenty-five years there has been a father-shaped hole in my life; I have lived far longer without him than I did with him. I am only five years younger now than he was when he died, and not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and miss him. I reflect on some of the disastrous decisions I’ve made in my life and think if he had been here, maybe he could have steered me away from those rocks and shoals. Age has made me look more like him too; there are moments when I see pictures of myself now and shiver a little at the uncanny resemblance. I have felt for much of my life like a mere echo of his voice, my path ever uncertain, every step of the way wondering what he would think of the choices I’ve made, if I have lived up to the example he laid down in his too-brief journey. I am not really a spiritual person, but I feel the same longing to be able to ask the absent Father if I am all that I am meant to be. If I am worthy of his name and of his love. I feel it so acutely of late, like a needle twisting in my heart, and today most of all. I want to hear him say he’s proud of me. That’s all I’ve ever asked. It is all the validation I’ll ever need.
After my mother passed away several years later, we had a small ceremony to place her ashes with his. As we left the cemetery, a pair of geese from a nearby hill took off and soared away into the sky. The timing was eerily serendipitous; it was almost as if they were together again now, reunited in a new life and heading off to adventures bold. One could even imagine that they were bidding me a last goodbye, secure that they had done all they could and were letting me go now to face the challenges of the future with the strength and the values they had instilled in me. Values of kindness, respect, compassion, empathy and love. Everything I am I owe to them, and through the sadness, I feel gratitude. I wish I could tell them that. I wish I could toss the ball around in the backyard with Dad and complain about the lack of depth in the Jays’ pitching staff and ask him what he thinks of Daniel Craig as James Bond. I wish I could introduce him to my beautiful wife and listen to them sing together – they’d sound terrific, I’m sure. As amazing as my wedding was, Dad leading the guests in a round of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” with half the words wrong would have made it even more memorable.
There is an old saying that a candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright; I have to believe that in the eleven short years I had with my father we burned brightly indeed, and that we loved each other as much as a father and son could. Perhaps I don’t have his counsel anymore, or his arm around my shoulder on those darkest days, but I have the life he gave me, and the road ahead that is his greatest possible bequest. I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing my dad, but when I get up tomorrow and start my twenty-sixth year without him I will try to carry the best parts of who he was through all the rest of my days, and live the life he would have wanted for me. And I hope that’s tribute enough.
I love you, Dad.
Blain William Milne