We are just a couple weeks away from Father’s Day.
Normally, right about now, I’d be doing some kind of woeful “happy fatherless day to me” countdown.
Some kind of tear-jerking tribute to the late Jim Combden.
Some ode to that salty Barr’d Island blood from whence I bubbled.
But instead, I write about someone else’s daddy.
Today, I write about Blair Tapper.
I first saw him in the big family portrait at the house of what would one day be my in-laws. 17 grandchildren. Blair is the one right smack dab in the middle. The one with the craaaaaazy eyes staring right into your soul.
My husband’s first cousin and a few years his senior, I didn’t know Blair very well. But from a few brief encounters I learned one thing for certain – he was damn funny. Sarcastic and seemingly crooked, his mission in life was to get under your skin. He got under mine, but for another reason altogether.
Just the look of him was side-splitting. Big menacing eyes topped with thick eyebrows. You’d think he was mad if not for the gem just a couple inches below: a perpetual beaming smile.
To me, he looked like a child, forever surprised or perplexed by the world. Probably one of the reasons he was so good with kids – because he was one. Another reason? Practice. He was dad to six. Yes, you heard me right. Six.
Blair was salt of the earth. No bullshit. No pretense. A roofer for 15 years, he also cleared snow and did small engine repair. Many locals probably remember him pumping gas at Tappers Gas Bar as a teenager. He worked harder in his 38 years than most do their entire lives. Yes, you heard me right. 38.
He lived just one street over from us in the Torbay countryside we both called home, where streets are not really streets but cow paths and lovers lanes. There are cows all over these parts, and I reckon Blair and Kelly’s driveway was Lovers Lane. And not just because of the multitude of munchkins pouring out of their humble abode.
I’d often see Blair at the grocery store nearby, picking up a few things for Kelly to cook for supper. Mushrooms. Hot dog buns. Occasionally, on the way back he’d pop into the house for a beer with Andrew. Kelly would text him, wondering what the heck was taking him so long. He’d chuckle mischievously as he texted her back. He spoke her name with love. I could see it, hear it. They’d be making another baby before the wieners were warm.
When I took Max for a walk or tricycle ride, Blair would often zip by in his ol’ white minivan. Even the way he looked and waved was a performance.
He was at our house a couple of months ago, when he was feeling good. His head was as smooth as a baby’s arse, but he looked well, eyes wide and full of hope. Andrew was helping him with his passport application; he was thinking about going somewhere, maybe Mexico, for some kind of treatment unavailable here in St. John’s. He showed me the two passport photos he had to choose from – one where he was bald from the chemo, one where he had a bit of hair, both photos with those crazy-ass eyes. He asked which one was best, so I said, “Either way, they probably don’t let psychos on the plane.” He laughed. He could give it, and I knew he could take it too, cancer or no cancer. I rubbed his head and said it was cute. It was.
I recall that night clearly. I was doing my usual song and dance to try and get Mister Max to go to sleep. His little voice was calling out to me from his bedroom, begging me to lie down with him again. “Mommy, lie down. Mommy, lie down.” The soundtrack of my sleepless life. I rolled my eyes and sighed. “This happens every night,” I said. To which Blair replied something like, “Go in with him, b’y. I loves lying down with the youngsters at bedtime. One of my favourite things.”
Damn you, Blair Tapper. Now, every single night when Max calls out to me, as much as I want to tell him to “go the hell to sleep, maggot!,” I just can’t. I hear Blair’s voice in my head, I take a deep breath, and into the room I march. Again. To savour the moment that tomorrow does not guarantee.
Despite the toll cancer took on his body these last few months, Blair was strong, optimistic, and matter of fact. But once when Andrew bumped into him and asked how things were going, Blair showed a softer side. He said things were not great, but spoke with assurance as usual. Then he welled up as he confessed the one thought he could not bear – the thought of being too sick to pick up Victoria, his six-year-old little girl, from the bus stop.
He could stare cancer in the face and say, “fuck you, I will take you down,” but the thought of his little girl waiting for him, and daddy never showing up… It’s enough to make the Incredible Hulk break down and sob.
Despite a grim prognosis, Blair never gave up. Several times, I saw him scuffing from the store to his minivan, grocery bags in hand, bent over, pale, and broken. But dammit, he was bringing home those groceries.
Two weeks ago, he even ventured to Denmark for a last chance treatment – to buy some time, to change his fate. Maybe he was looking for a miracle. Maybe he was an old dog going off into the woods to lie down. Either way, it took a heap of courage. It was the first time his wife Kelly had ever been on a plane. Blair died there in a suburb of Copenhagen, three days ago, on May 28th.
I lost my dad too early, too. I guess any time is too early when you’re talking about your father. But at least I had my dad for a good spell. Long enough for him to prepare me for a world without him in it. While I’m busy hating the world and the dummies who’ve yet to cure cancer, I am thankful I had my foolish father as long as I did, short as it was.
But this, this is too bloody early. Excruciatingly early. The Tapper kids ages: 16, 14, 12, six, two and one. Some of them won’t even remember him. Does sadness go any deeper than this?
This is where we must take a lesson from Blair himself:
We have to hope that he is not lost to his kids at all, that they will grow up with a strong sense of who he was, instilled in them by everyone who knew and loved their daddy.
And sweet, sweet genetics: do your thang, work your magic. Make those kids inherit his humour, perseverance, humility and lively disposition. In a few years, make us all drop our jaws and say, “My God, you turned out just like your father.”
Though he won’t tuck them in anymore, or pick them up from the bus stop, what he was to his children is still a very powerful thing. The knowledge of who he was and how he lived will inspire them long after he’s gone. Who knows, maybe he’ll mean even more to the kids who can only imagine what he was like. Love works in mysterious ways.
They will know he worked his ass off to keep them safe and warm and happy. Just before Christmas, despite the raging lymphoma, he still insisted on working – “to buy a few more gifts for the kids,” he told Andrew.
They will know he was strong. He laughed in the face of cancer and fought it to the bitter end.
They will know he never gave up. He tried everything he could to stay by their side.
They will know he was courageous. We will tell them. Like an epic tragedy, on Monday morning, the hero from Torbay laid down his sword in the land of Hamlet.
With all this knowledge wrapped around their hearts, his children can grow up in the warm glow of his shadow, proud as punch to say Blair Tapper was their dad.
When you’re saluting the death of a clown, you must end with humour.
So I’d like to conclude with a message to Blair:
How the fuck am I supposed to get the roof done now?!
And don’t worry about anyone forgetting you, buddy. Those menacing eyes will haunt me for eternity.
Blair’s funeral will be held on Monday, June 4th at Holy Trinity in Torbay. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to a trust fund for the Tapper children.