Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day

As I was driving to work this morning (or late last night on the other side of the world), my phone started ringing. I'd left it in a pocket of my bag, one of those many zippered, multi-pocketed Delsey affairs, so it took a minute for my blindly groping hand to find it. Though I'd half swerved into another lane, I was lucky only I only had to bear the honk of an outraged Nissan Sunny speeding past me. As I reached for the hands-free, I stopped, startled by the display.

Once in a blue moon, at this time, if the kids are extra energetic and have decided to drive their mother crazy at that early hour, I'll get a call from the wife informing me of this fact. So while a call from home at that time was not a regular occurrence, it was not unusual either. But It wasn't a call from home, or at least home as it exists for me here. It was a call from my other home, the one far away on the other side of the world. It was a call from my father.

Growing up, I'd had a tumultuous relationship with my father. When I was 9, he had moved from Vancouver to Toronto to find work, and a place for our family to move to since the economy on the west coast had collapsed, and we had needed to move. A few months later, my mother, sister and I had followed, only instead of going straight to Toronto, we went to Ottawa, to visit my grandparents. What I wasn't told then, nor would be for a few more months, was that this stop wasn't temporary. We weren't going to be joining my father later, because my mother had filed for divorce.

I never learned the reasons why, or I had learned "reasons," but those were fictions, created for the convenience of the moment, with the truth sacrificed on the altar of need. You see, while I did have a tumultuous relationship with my father while growing up, up until that point in my life, that wasn't the case. Sure my father could be stern, strict, and had a temper (all of which are present in myself in abundance), he was also an integral part of my life. Some fathers neglect their children, eternally unaware of what their kids might be doing, who their friends are, or what they wanted in life. Some fathers pay attention, but stand at a distance, encouraging their children, but otherwise going about their business in a hands-off manner. My father wasn't like that at all. He loved being a part of my life. He was a coach on my soccer team, and on the many t-ball and baseball teams I played with. He volunteered with the Beavers and Cubs I had joined, helping to lead camping expeditions, and was always ready to go outside to play catch, or to drag me and my sister off on a camping trip. But when I was 9, that all ended, and I would never have a chance to know that father again.

What developed after that is a story familiar to many children who have gone through a divorce, whose custodial parent has decided that keeping their children hundreds of kilometers away from their other parent is "for the best." Visits with Dad became a strange, almost alien affair. At first he would drive up to pick up my sister and myself, take us to where he lived, then drive us back a day and a half later. As a kid, I never thought much of this, other than that we had to sit in the car a lot. But from where I am now, I can only see what a commitment that was. Toronto to Ottawa is six hours one way, which meant that my father would drive 12 hours on a Friday, losing a day of work, and 12 hours on a Sunday, just to see us for a single full day. And for a sub-contractor who gets paid by the hour, who only gets paid when working, this was hard to do. Especially since court ordered support payments don't take any of that into consideration.

As I grew older, seeing my father only a few times a year, when he was allowed visitation, I found myself drawn into a narrative that cast one side as a villain, and the other as the suffering victim. My father, I was told, was many things, and none of them positive. If I needed money for something for school, for some new shoes, or whatever, I would be handed a telephone receiver and told to ask my father for some money. I didn't like doing this, but didn't know what else to do. And as my father put it one time, "how come whenever you call me, it's only to ask for money?"

It was quite an indictment, and it hurt. I felt ashamed every time I had to ask, because I'd realize that the last time I had called, had also been to ask for something. When I would visit my father, at times he would be angry, which at that age seemed like anger directed towards me. From where I am today, I can see that anger wasn't directed towards me, but towards the whole situation.

Eventually my father couldn't afford to drive up to Ottawa any more, but since I was old enough, I would go with my sister on the Greyhound to see him. The visits were generally brief, and with each successive visit, I seemed to connect less and less with him. By the time I was in my mid teens, we had nothing in common at all, and could barely even speak to each other without getting into a fight.

I had read about this sort of alienation between parents and their children, especially between fathers and sons, and while the writers always approached the subject for the point of view that this was not a natural state of affairs, I couldn't see it that way. It seemed perfectly natural to me. He and I, my father and me, we were two different creatures, speaking a different language, entirely unable to comprehend the other. So it was, and so it went, until one day in my late twenties, when we had an all out, roof-raising argument.

Up until that point, for nearly two decades, I had been soaked in a narrative about my father, not as he was, but as I was meant to see him as. The facts of what had happened, the facts as I knew them, I learned, weren't facts at all. Just a version of events, grounded as much in truth as in fantasy. He was angry that he didn't know me, didn't really know me, that had not been allowed to be a part of my life, to get to know the man I would become.

As I sat with my daughters last night, talking with my wife, and thinking about our next child, due in a few months, and whether it would be a boy or a girl, the thought struck me. How hard must it have been for him? Every day I get home from work, and two sets of running feet start screaming my way, to welcome me home, to give me a hug, and to ask for a kiss. Every day, at some point, we'll wrestle or read or play. As they grow older, they will want to do other things, things that I know, absolutely, and without a doubt, that I will want to be a part of. I want to coach their soccer team, or help out at their dance troupe, or drive the van filled with their friends over to band practice. The want that I feel is so powerful, so pervasive, that I simply cannot imagine what it would be like were I suddenly, one day, prevented from doing so. The very thought that I would lose my girls, have then taken out of my life, fills me with terror.

Should that happen, I am sure I could go on living. But it wouldn't be a life I had chosen, or wanted. It wouldn't be a life I could face with equanimity. But it would be a life, I am quite sure, that I would feel undying anger and enmity at being forced into. The same life my father was forced into.

This morning, as I spoke to my father, I truly felt that I really knew him, because he was also me. We weren't really different at all. Beyond just being fathers, we share a similar character, a similar view of the world, and a similar sense of the importance of family, and of our own responsibilities for our families. And though we can never changed the gulf of years where this wasn't so, I can only hope that with my own children, and with my own family, I can use that experience, and ensure that history stays in the past, so that a new narrative can form.

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