I have been preparing my dad’s eulogy for years.
But when the call finally came at 9:02 p.m. on June 13 (12:02 a.m., June 14, his time), all those words went out the window.
His health had not been great for some time and every time I have been home to Ottawa over the past decade, on leaving I fully expected it might be the last time I would see him. But he hung on and had a reasonable to good quality of life until the very end.
When we all got together this past February for my son’s wedding, it was different. I think even he was pretty certain it would be his final send-off. Fortunately, for the first time in, I believe, seven years, all of my three siblings and I were together. We had a wonderful visit and a beautiful, professional family portrait taken.
When he dropped me off at the airport, I gave him a big hug and told him I loved him. That was no little thing and kind of awkward because my dad was not an openly affectionate man. That didn’t matter because it was his unwavering support for and encouragement of us in everything we did and who we are that told us he loved us all deeply.
Still, I felt like it needed to be done.
Three weeks ago, he was admitted to hospital with dangerously low blood pressure. I talked to him every day while he was there. He was very emotional. It was hard to take because I’ve never heard him like that in my entire life. His entire focus was on getting stable enough that he could get out of there and die at home.
Fortunately, he succeeded. I talked to him a few more times and my mom gave me daily updates. He was not physically well — tired, weak, emotional — but was still enjoying the things he loved, the irises and birds and squirrels in his garden, cooking, keeping up-to-date on politics and current events and engaging in intellectual pursuits.
On the day he died, he posted to Facebook about some research he was doing on the Cree language inspired by stories my brother-in-law had shared.
Still, every day during those last couple of weeks was like standing on railroad tracks, seeing the freight train coming, but not being able to get out of the way. I knew it had arrived as soon as I saw my mom’s phone number come up; she would never call me after midnight Eastern time.
If I’m being honest, I held a lot of resentment toward my dad for a long time for reasons that are now moot. That resentment made me a challenging teenager, to say the least.
But he stuck by me through thick and thin and I grew to admire and respect him more than anyone else I have ever known.
As director of international programs for the Canadian Teachers Federation, my dad travelled the world touching the lives of countless children implementing educational elements of Canada’s commitment to international development. His dedication and professionalism inspired my own confidence to get out into the world and try to do my best in all my endeavours, for which I am grateful.
He was a product of a different time when corporal punishment was the norm. And although I got a few lickings when I was young, he broke that cycle early on, which taught me critical thinking and to have the courage and insight to change my convictions in light of better evidence.
Sometimes he got pretty creative about it. When I was around 12 or 13, he grounded me — almost certainly justifiably — and I made the mistake of telling him it wasn’t fair. He said fine, you’re not grounded, instead, write me a 500-word essay on justice.
Of course, doing the research for the paper taught me a lot about justice, and about writing (because he actually marked it), but more importantly, it taught me to make sure I could back up my opinions.
He was the most principled of human beings, committed to universal education, equality, social justice and fundamental freedoms such as free speech.
When a bunch of my friends and I ran a mock election campaign in high school and I got suspended for putting up satirical posters in the library, he was not impressed. Sorry, I don’t remember what the content was, something about the school constitution, which we, of course, had not even read. Again, it was a lesson in not going off half-cocked.
Nevertheless, he defended my right to free expression, no matter how ill-informed he thought it was. He fought the school board, got my suspension cancelled, my record expunged and an apology from the principal.
He eschewed censorship.
When the school board banned Catcher in the Rye, he bought me a copy. When he found out the edition of Hamlet we were studying in Grade 12 had missing scenes someone decided were too racy for high schoolers, he gave me his edition from university.
He lived what he believed.
When an opportunity with an international teachers organization in Switzerland presented itself, he left the decision to a family vote, even though he wanted to take the position. Democracy.
When an airline he had been using for work travel for decades, offered him a flight for two anywhere in the world, he turned it down. Integrity.
He and my mom took a trip anyway, but he paid for it himself. Self-sufficiency.
If I had the rest of these pages to go on, I could fill them.
Suffice it to say, he was a great guy. He treated everyone with dignity, respect and compassion.
Anybody even remotely connected to one of us, he treated as family. My lifelong friends think of him as a second dad. My ex-wife, (my children’s mom) still thinks of him as a father-in-law. Her daughter by her second husband calls him grandpa.
I can’t even count the number of well-wishes that have poured in since June 14.
To steal a line from one of my brothers’ tribute to my dad: If I end up half the man he was, I will consider my life well-lived.