Tag Archives: Fathers and sons

A Tale of 216 Stitches

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Of all the things my father ever said to me in the ten short years he was in my life, that one resonates louder than the others, as if it were etched by laser into the very tissue of my brain.  I can recall other moments, and wiser words offered on more significant occasions, but that one statement carries a deeper meaning.  It’s a promise any father would happily make to his son, with every intention of keeping it even if doing so depended entirely on chance.  What else would you say?  Would anyone want to dim an eight-year-old’s innocent hopes with frank explanations of probability and odds?

The snared ball is the greatest prize a baseball fan can hope to claim.  Financially it isn’t worth much, you can easily purchase one at modest cost from any vendor of sports equipment and yet for decades spectators at every stadium in every city have been leaping, diving and twisting themselves into pretzels to try to close confident fingers around that little, immensely important lump of cowhide and rubber.  It’s not the thing, of course, it’s the connection to the game.  Of being able to feel for one split second that you aren’t a faceless nobody in the crowd, but an integral part of the story you’re watching unfold before you.  Some people, like the infamous Steve Bartman, have seen their desperate quest for a ball script them into the narrative with an odious lapse in judgment they’ll rue to their last days.  For most, it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of sitting happenstance under the end of the arc of an errantly tapped breaking ball on the outside corner.

My father had been to the snow-blanketed, very first Toronto Blue Jays game in April 1977, and as soon as I was old enough to sit still for two plus hours it was my turn to accompany him to Exhibition Stadium every few weeks throughout the summer months, to find a place on the cold, chipped blue paint metal seats, with steamed hot dog, scorebook and tiny glove in hand, and watch the magic unfold on the bright green turf – hoping, as all kids did at that age, that the coveted foul ball might miraculously find its way towards us.  Shortly before the start of the ’84 season, he and his best friend John decided to go in halfsies on seasons tickets to ninth row seats up from first base.  John knew nothing about baseball (he intended to use his tickets largely to promote his insurance business), so my father was able to discreetly pick out the best games against the best teams with the best giveaways of Jays swag.  He put this thick book of 40 pairs of slim cardboard tickets in my hand and stood back to watch my eyes gleam as my fingers rifled through them.  I hope we catch a ball this year, I must have said.

“Oh, we’ll definitely get a ball,” he replied.

We had to, right?  Going to that many games, it was just a matter of time and inevitability before say, Willie Upshaw or Damaso Garcia popped a lazy curve just over our heads and into our laps.  And so we went.  To contests held in both evening and afternoon, scorchers under the July sun and polar affairs in late September darkness.  We baked, we were drenched, we froze, and still we went and we watched and we waited for that pop-up, both wearing gloves for the moment it was bound to happen.  1984 came and went, the Detroit Tigers stomped everyone in the league on their way to the World Series, and despite all of it we were still without what my little heart wanted most.  The ritual resumed the following year, and we went again, sharing in the triumph of the victory in the AL East and the heartbreak of seeing the Kansas City Royals snatch it all away.  But still no ball.  We came close once during a night game:  our seats were on the aisle and a foul did careen its way to about five steps above us, but despite my father attempting to imitate Kevin Pillar four full years before Kevin Pillar was even born, the ball slipped out of his grasp and into some other lucky sod’s hand.  (My father joked with friends later on that I had recorded the play in my scorebook as E-Dad).

We didn’t go to as many games in 1986, and I don’t remember what the last game we saw together was, but it too ended with that promise still unfulfilled.  There was probably a shrug and a “maybe next year” comment, and I don’t think I was even that upset about it.  I was old enough to understand then that catching a ball was really down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.  “It’s okay, Dad,” I’m sure I said.  Besides, there were much more potent and lasting prizes accumulated from all those games – memories, emotions, and precious shared time with the man I admired most in the entire world.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Five months after the end of the ’86 season, he was gone.

He was gone long before Toronto had heard of Roberto Alomar or Joe Carter.  He wouldn’t see the opening of the SkyDome, nor the brushes with greatness that were the AL East championships in ’89 and ’91.  He wouldn’t see the glories that were ’92 and ’93.  And he wouldn’t get to see his son walk onto that field (with two hundred other red-coated marching band members) to play the national anthems for a game attended by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and President George H.W. Bush.  Weighed down by a fifty-pound bass drum harnessed to my chest I took a breath and soaked in the persistent, bass-clef hum that hovers in the stadium air, thinking briefly about the voice that was missing. the one that would be cheering the loudest, pointing and boasting to everyone in earshot that “that’s my son!”  The one who’d still doggedly bring his glove to each game because he had an old promise to keep.

After having found my way back to baseball again these past few years I’ve wondered on occasion how he would have reacted to the strike of ’94 and the Blue Jays’ ensuing two decades of irrelevance and ugly uniforms.  If maybe there would have been a few arguments here and there about the importance of remembering and savoring the purest parts of the game and the impact it can have on the heart, rather than letting oneself be disillusioned by salary disputes and steroids and endless losing seasons.  I wonder if we still would have found ourselves in those first-base-line seats every other week staring hopefully towards home plate and tensing fingers inside mitts at each crack of the bat even as the crowds thinned away.  My father was many things, but not for one moment could he be accused of harboring the remotest hint of cynicism – hence the deliberate choice of the word “definitely.”  It was going to happen, it was just a matter of time and patience, and of never losing hope.

Fast forward to May 26, 2017.

The reviled Texas Rangers are in Toronto for the first meeting between the arch-rivals since Rougned Odor threw past Mitch Moreland to throw away their 2016 season.  A month or so earlier, my wife has the suggestion that we celebrate our upcoming tenth anniversary by renting one of the rooms in the Renaissance Hotel overlooking center field for the night.  It’s a lot of money, but we need the break after a stressful couple of months, and besides, it’s one of those bucket list experiences that every Jays fan should try at least once.  So we take the plunge.  The timing of the game she picks turns out to be serendipitous, with Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki each scheduled to return to the lineup for the first time after month-long stints on the disabled list.  I book the afternoon off work and we make our way down to the stadium, check in, grab a Starbucks and take the elevator up to the fourth floor, after signing the waiver promising we won’t do anything lewd within view of the public or worse, chuck anything onto the field.  The view is incredible:  staring directly back towards home plate, the tails of the championship banners dangling just above our window.  For the first time, I’ve hand-painted a sign to bring to the game; it reads IT’S OUR 10TH ANNIVERSARY – GO JAYS GO!  I tape it to the glass and lean out the window to watch the Jays take batting practice.  The air smells of air conditioning and oil, and even empty seats thrum with the anticipation of the contest to commence a few hours hence.

It’s kind of hard to see facial features, but I can recognize the haircuts and the batting stances.  Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, Jose Bautista and Ryan Goins are each taking their turn smacking balls into the outfield.  Some dude in a suit with a shock of white hair is wandering around the cage chatting with each as they finish:  the one and only Buck Martinez, the same guy my father and I use to watch behind the plate at the Ex.  Directly below me, Blue Jay pitchers are taking warmup tosses with one another.  Marco Estrada is doing a series of hard sprints from left field into center, and as he finishes each he tilts his head up.  Like a starry-eyed six-year-old I wave at him each time, and on the fifth sprint he gives me kind of a half-assed arm shrug back, as if to say “bugger off mortal, I’m in game mode.”  Even though Mike Bolsinger is scheduled to start tonight, Estrada remains all business.

The pitchers finish their throws and four of them congregate in center to retrieve the balls the sluggers are knocking their way.  From our perch above it’s still hard to distinguish features, but numbers on warmup jerseys help.  Dominic Leone, J.P. Howell, Aaron Loup and Jason Grilli (easy to pick out with his longer hair) stand there chatting about whatever it is ballplayers chat about when the cameras are absent.  As Bautista knocks balls into the still-empty outfield seats and the WestJet Flight Deck, Grilli’s attention wanders and he turns around to look up.  This way.  I wave.  He waves back.  He sees my 10th anniversary sign.  He points it out to Aaron Loup.  Grilli’s been kneading a ball in his hand, and he holds it up as if to offer it to me.  I give a thumbs up.  Grilli reaches back and lobs it up, high, towards our window.

THUNK.

Off the glass just to the right.  Way outside the zone.  Ball one, maybe.  It tumbles back to the turf.

Grilli gets another ball and throws again.  This one misses to the left.  You can’t fault the guy for trying, but it’s starting to look a bit hopeless.  We’re really high above the field, and it’s not as if he can afford to burn his velocity and control on a souvenir for a fan when he needs to save it for a possible eighth inning against Mike Napoli et al, you know, the situations he gets paid $3 million a year for.  The third try is closer, but still off the mark.  I shrug at him, assuring him that it’s okay, that I appreciate the effort.

But the Grilled Cheese is undeterred, and he goes for a fourth attempt.  Here it comes.  Up, and up, and closer.  It hovers just outside our window, and time freezes it in place, tantalizing me.  Here it is, that invaluable prize the little boy in you always wanted.  It will never be closer than it is right now.

I thrust trembling arms through the window, and shaking fingers close tight.

I’ve got it.  Holy shit, I’ve got it.

Part of me can’t believe it’s just happened.  Quickly, I wave and give Jason Grilli a big thumbs up, and call out “thank you” even though he probably can’t hear me.  Then I turn away from the window, open my hand and look down.  It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  It’s scuffed with blue and brown from its journey from the bat across the dirt infield to Grilli’s glove to my hands.  So little – and such a big deal all at the same time.  A lump rises in my throat and tears start to pool at the corner of my eyes.  A thirty-three-year-old promise, fulfilled as someone now long gone knew it always would be.  Maybe you can imagine that somehow he was guiding that last throw from Grilli.  Maybe it was all a coincidence.  But it doesn’t matter.  By whatever means you want to believe, it still felt in that moment like a final gift from father to son.  A reminder that cynicism is nothing next to the enduring power of hope.  The same intangible quality that keeps us invested in baseball no matter how dark the world outside gets, no matter how many runs the opposition piles up.  Hope can be found in the smallest of things, even in a modest collection of 216 stitches.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

We definitely did.

Thanks, Grilled Cheese.

Thanks, Dad.

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A Jersey By Any Other Name

jersey

I’m not the swiftest guy for recognizing trends, especially as they pertain to sports.  Purists might argue that I’m unfashionably late to the party, and no true Scotsman when it comes to speaking about baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays.  I might counter with a hipster retort that I established my bona fides before many of these folks were even born, that I can describe the precise ass-numbing feel of a field-level aluminum blue Exhibition Stadium seat and the sights, sounds and smells in early 80’s late September in visceral, soul-stroking detail, but admittedly, I titled my first piece of modern-day baseball writing All Aboard the Bandwagon, so contend with that contradiction if you will.

But there is one particular thing I’ve grown very aware and very weary of in these latter days regarding team jerseys.  Specifically this:  that it is considered in circles of sports fandom a pitiable faux pas for a fan to wear a professional jersey with his own name stitched on the back.  “Lame” is the first adjective that usually gets attached to it.  Plenty of sports writers both professional and amateur enjoy dropping in sneering little digs against self-named jerseys like it’s some kind of shibboleth for the hallowed learned ones, pretenders need not apply.  Even the athletes themselves get in on the scorn:  Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets made a video in which (among other things) he condoned mocking it.

Far be it from anyone, I think, to dictate how any individual should be permitted to express their fondness for a particular sports franchise – barring unhinged, singular, stalker-like obsession – but let’s parse this a little.

Jerseys are massive business, the leading source of every team’s merchandise revenue, and demand for them is largely inelastic, especially if your guys are consistently winning.  Tune into any ballgame and the stands are an ocean of home team colors rising and rippling like a stormy Atlantic with every successfully batted ball, every welcome trot across the plate.  Only 25 guys at a time will enjoy the privilege of wearing those jerseys for the purpose for which they were designed, but this shouldn’t stop the 50,000+ people watching them from wanting to be connected to the action, from feeling that but for a few twists of fate (and lack of athletic ability) it might be themselves standing on that mound, or squaring up in the batter’s box with the emotions of millions of people pinned on the outcome of their swing at the incoming curve.  Not a fan has yet drawn breath who never, at any point in their lives, imagined they were out there on that field.  And the odds of actually getting to do so are lottery-like in their impossibility.  So we settle then, for donning the uniform in expression of solidarity with the fortunate few.  It lets us be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Not that this is a cheap option.  A basic MLB-quality Blue Jays jersey can set you back $250 and change, with customization driving the cost even higher.  For most fans this isn’t going to be a purchase they’re going to treat casually.  It might have to be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, unless one falls victim to an unfortunate mustard mishap during the seventh-inning stretch.  So the choice of what to stitch on the back requires careful consideration.  The most common option is to request the number and name of your favorite current player, but this can present a quandary should he abruptly be traded or otherwise fall from that esteemed plateau we reserve for our athletic heroes.  How many Jays fans still relish wearing Brett Lawrie jerseys as he flails with the failing White Sox while the guy they traded him for two years ago establishes himself as arguably one of the premier players to ever wear the Blue Jays uniform?  How many folks rushed to purchase a David Price jersey for his two-month run in Toronto in 2015 and now cringe at the sight of him leading the Red Sox biting at the Jays’ heels for first in the AL East?  And how many out there thought twice about slipping on their old Jose Reyes jersey again after his domestic violence bust?

If Edwin Encarnacion is trotting his home run parrot for the Boston Red Sox next year as is widely rumored and feared, will the sea of Toronto fans who now wear his #10 still be as enthused to do so, especially when those jacks are jacking up the score against us?  Players are transitory – so is the nature of professional baseball as ultimately a business – but the team endures.

Five years from now, most of the Blue Jays we are cheering for today and whose names and numbers we wear with pride will be gone; traded, retired or otherwise sent packing.  Some will depart embittered for richer pastures, others will conclude their Toronto careers with naught but fond memories.  But the fans will still be here.  Stamping your own name on the jersey is to ensure its life beyond any possible expiration date, beyond unexpected trades and multi-million-dollar free agent contracts.  It’s to declare that your loyalty to your team is absolute, and can’t be bought by a Scott Boras type who’s secured you a king’s ransom to smash dingers somewhere else.  You’re here for the long haul, and you won’t be embarrassed to sport that jersey when your chosen guys suffer the inevitable down year and linger in the basement racking up a hundred hair-tearing losses in half-empty stadiums shaking with catcalls and flung empty beer cans.

The esteemed Mr. Syndergaard’s comment seems to suggest that some if not many of the players themselves don’t like fans wearing self-named jerseys either.  Maybe they believe that some rando in the stands hasn’t earned it the way they have, through bruising slogs in the minors to that coveted, fabled call up to The Show.  But it would seem the height of ego to assume that the fan is wearing it because he somehow equates himself with the greatness of the professional player, that he is trying to hint that he is just as good as they are.

At every home game, the Blue Jays hold a small ceremony in which they present a customized jersey to a member of the Canadian Forces who has served on active duty.  If that soldier then chooses to wear that jersey to a game simply as a fan, would anyone, pro athlete or otherwise, dare to scoff and suggest that he or she hadn’t earned it?  There may be a story to that self-named jersey, and you shouldn’t presume that it’s because the person chose to spend $250 on being “lame.”

No matter what Noah Syndergaard might possibly think.

(And let’s put things in perspective:  the ability to throw a 100 mph fastball is not curing disease or contributing to world peace.  It’s not even as noble a cause as that of a teacher who gets first graders passionate about reading, and no matter how many millions of bucks we fling at these dudes, they’ll be relegated to being laughable side statistics and local celebrity golf guests the day their arms finally blow out.)

For my (harrumph)th birthday, my family got me a Blue Jays jersey with MILNE and 11 on the back.  I don’t wear it to disrespect Kevin Pillar, the gravity-defying center fielder who currently wears #11 for the team.  I don’t even wear it for myself, even if it is my last name.

I wear it for my father.

Dad attended the very first Toronto Blue Jays game in 1977 and sat shivering on the metal benches of the Ex to watch them beat the White Sox in the April snow.  When I was old enough he started taking me to games, often pulling me out of school to the chagrin of my friends so we could hustle down to Toronto for a 12:35 contest on a Wednesday afternoon.  He loved the Blue Jays more than I ever could, and bequeathed to me an enduring passion for the game – a flame that sadly dwindled following the 1994 strike but blazed back to life in 2015.  While he saw them win the AL East for the first time, and we shivered in the stands together as they lost to George Brett and the Royals in the ALCS, he passed away in early 1987, and would never see the Jays make it to and win the World Series five years later.  It’s one of my deepest regrets that he missed out on that.  As for the #11, that was his number when he played football in high school, and when he played amateur slow-pitch softball as an adult – with me on the creaky wooden bleachers, scoring the game and keeping track of the bats and gloves and the post-game beers.  In another life he might have worn #11 for the Blue Jays himself, such was his dedication and determination for the things that drove him.  But absent the realization of that fantasy I will continue to sport the 11 and the name in his memory, to carry a part of him with me to the games that he would have loved to see, and if you want to approach me and tell me I’m lame for doing that then I hope you enjoy the bloody nose you’re going to walk away with.

The point is that you don’t know.  You don’t know where that jersey came from, or the personal significance of what’s stitched on the back.  There’s certainly more of an emotional history to it than to that of anyone who goes out and buys a Donaldson or a Bautista so they can look exactly the same as the fifteen other guys sitting in their row.  Making fun of someone who chooses to support their team in this small way is yet another example of this perplexing and tribal human need to qualify, for whatever insecure ego-assuaging reason, precisely how people are allowed to demonstrate their interest in whatever innocent something makes them happy – a reminder that class distinctions and unspoken rules prevail even in the shared passions that everyone is quick to claim unite us.

Just stop it already.

Anyhow, see you at the game.

You’ll know which one I am.

Catch: A story of fathers and sons

SAMSUNG

This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.

WHACK!

An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.

With a Song in My Heart: V is for…

“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.

Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.”  Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy.  The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father.  Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that.  Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived.  Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad.  To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.

As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school.  For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here.  The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over.  From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done.  (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.)  Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged.  When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult.  You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.

In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick.  I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume.  In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice.  I am… well, incredibly not.  There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer.  I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked.  It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket.  She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it.  Hindsight and all that.  And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.

When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark.  At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before.  Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path.  On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own.  In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him.  Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.

Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well.  Would that translate to a better life?  The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy.  Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar.  When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away.  I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well.  But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy.  I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one.  You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place.  He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son.  That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.

Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound:   the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended.  If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener.  The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign.  Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen.  More on this in a minute.

My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed.  His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed.  I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup.  He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music.  Anything from the 50’s or 60’s, however, he knew cold.  The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops.  For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist:  Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes.  He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.

Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.)  This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens.  Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning.  That is, if you cared.  Dad didn’t.  His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter.  “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”  And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.”  (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)

I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place.  I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer.  In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice.  Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is.  And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son.  We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts.  Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.

With a Song in My Heart: F is for…

“The Fool on the Hill” – The Beatles, 1967.

Once dismissed by a critic as a “most unworthy Beatles standard,” and certainly not one that gets any regular airplay, “The Fool on the Hill” makes my list for a single shining reason:  it was my father’s favorite Beatles song.  When he was alive I didn’t give a lot of thought to why people liked certain things and not others, so it never occurred to me to ask him his rationale for preferring this song over some of the more popular Beatle hits.  When I picture him singing – as he did, whenever possible, and loudly – this is the chorus I hear:

“But the fool on the hill

Sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head

See the world spinning round.”

Paul McCartney once said that the song was about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (prior to the Beatles’ disillusionment with him), or, more generally, the idea of the man who sits off by himself and is thought of as lesser by his peers because of his methods or appearance, but who regardless appears to have all the answers – or at least thinks he does.  I’ve attempted to speculate as to why the lyric appealed to my father so much.  Did he see himself in the song?  Did he feel like that ostracized outsider watching the world turn on its merry way without including him?  Or did he just like the melody?  It could very well have been the latter.  My father dragged us to church each Sunday, yet the Bible was never spoken of at home, nor were we expected to pray, or even do the barest minimum of saying grace except at large family holiday gatherings.  No, Dad went to church so he had an excuse to belt out hymns at the top of his lungs.  It didn’t matter that he didn’t appear convinced of the message in those hymns; for him it was the sensory reverie of notes flowing from the larynx and reverberating from nave to narthex.  Mostly that came from his own mother – more on that when we get to “Q” – but you got the sense from my father that singing was the only time he ever felt truly free, and song choice was irrelevant.

Back to “The Fool on the Hill,” though.  Many years later I finally saw Paul McCartney play live and at one point in the set his bandmates left the stage, and without introduction he plunked himself down at a psychedelic-hued piano and started playing this “most unworthy standard.”  Did I chance to look up, even for just a second?  Maybe.  Certainly I paid much closer attention to the lyrics, picturing the man sitting at the crest of a sea of tall, windblown grass, knees to chest, overlooking the village in the valley below and contemplating the great mystery, instead of staying where he ostensibly belongs.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I fancy myself a questioner of things, looking evermore for the solutions to the riddles that evolve into new riddles themselves.  Wondering why things work the way they do and if there is a pattern to it all lingering just out of reach.  However, the biggest questions, indeed, the biggest doubts, are reserved for myself.  I doubt my ability, my purpose and my voice, endlessly, and find solace to these doubts in fleeting, empty validations.  I fear that I am missing out on life by commenting on it rather than participating in it; that while some might consider the unexamined life not worth living, there must be some life there to examine first.  I wonder if that makes me the fool, and if the whole enterprise would be served better by me shutting up, packing it in and going down the pub for a few pints with the lads.  Few are the days when these particular thoughts don’t flit across my consciousness.  Fewer still are the days when I confidently think the reverse.

It seems eerily prescient that even though my father was long gone before all of this took shape – whatever this turns out to be – whenever he dusted off “The Fool on the Hill” he could have very well been describing his son, the man his son would one day become.  Though he never thought of me as foolish; like most fathers the slightest of my accomplishments merited praise to anyone who’d listen.  Perhaps, though, he noted the eyes in my head seeing the world spinning round.  Certainly the moment he died was the instant I became obsessed with making sense of why the world operated as it did, why fairness remained elusive and why history was built on reactions to random occurrences.  Or finding meaning in a boy losing his father when there was so much yet to learn and so many Beatles songs left to sing together.

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.

Han

"It's a state of mind. Of soul, really."

Overwhelmed is a good way to describe myself after yesterday, and yet, even that somewhat hyperbolic word seems strangely inadequate.  I am so deeply moved and touched by the response to my post about my father – some of the comments left by friends and strangers quite literally brought forth tears.  And that is all my Dad, proving that what I said yesterday is true, that even twenty-five years gone he retains the ability to move and inspire everyone he touches.

Some of you shared your own inspiring stories of your parents, and of your own losses.  I think it’s important to remember in times like these that which connects us all as members of the human race; our emotions.  In our darkest and our brightest moments, we all feel the same way.  We can look at someone who is suffering and understand the depth of their pain.  More than that, we can share in our joy and celebrate mutual triumphs.  We can feel so alone in this vast universe, and yet we never are.  We have each other.  We will always have each other.  A man who was equal parts president and philosopher, John F. Kennedy, said that “we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  The possibility of our greatness is tied to our capacity for empathy, the knowledge of and the desire to do good, not out of a wish for personal gain, but because we know that it is right, and that the mere doing of good makes us all better.

There is a Korean word, han, which first came to my attention when it was used on an episode of The West Wing.  There is no English translation, but it was described on the show as “A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still there’s hope.”  I’m not sure if I’m using it here exactly in the way a native Korean would, but for my own purposes, it captures my state of mind this morning in a way that overwhelmed does not.  I still mourn my late father, but I am lifted, given great hope indeed, by the supportive thoughts of friends, family and strangers; the great tapestry of emotional connection that binds us all in a universal truth.  Maybe that’s a lesson to take from this experience, is that even in the depths of despair, there is always hope.  And we need not look far to find it.  It’s in me; it’s in you.  It’s in us.  It is us.

Twenty Five

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

1945-1987

Laudantium Duo Cathedrales

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?"

A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies.  Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes.  In a way though, it’s not really surprising.  The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster.  Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed.  Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon.  That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift.  James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree.  Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits.  A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm.  A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.

The setting:  The White House.  As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office.  His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash.  Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug.  In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence.  When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one.  He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election.  An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself.  In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father.  He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain.  At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again.  It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets.  Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete.  He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.

One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.”  The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right.  There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him.  It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son.  The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well.  We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth.  Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life.  It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be.  That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.