Dad would have been 71 years old today.
I can’t decide if I hate his birthday or his deathday more. I think maybe the birthday takes the cake. The deathday is a sharp jab to the guts, but the birthday is a slow, dull ache in your heart.
For the first year or so after Dad died, all I thought about was his death. But once my mind let go of the ugly stuff, it became more about missing the great stuff. Living in darkness is hard, not just because the darkness sucks, but because you miss the sun.
“Max won’t know me very well,” Dad said after he got the crappy news. He died when Max was nine months old. He was 67.
Max is four now and oh so very awesome. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. You catch yourself in a daze, just staring at them, amazed by the sweet things they say, the funny things they do, even the stuff that drives you to drink wine straight from the bottle. Dad would have gotten a kick out of Max. I imagine him standing there next to me, laughing with his squinty blue eyes, saying “Pop’s boy” while tousling Max’s hair with his hand — the one with the finger that couldn’t bend because he accidentally chopped it off with an ax back in the seventies.
But I know it cannot be. It will never ever be. And there’s nothing I can do to change that.
Max won’t know Poppy Jim. But ironically, right now, at four years old, he is very much like him. Because Dad was a four-year-old boy all his life.
Not just because he giggled like a schoolboy when he got presents (yes he did). Not only because he would kill for bubble gum (yes he would), or because everything in life was a guessing game (yes it was). But because even as a man in his sixties, he had the ability to see and enjoy the world as only a child could. Just as Max does now.
Max is fascinated by the smallest things. Bugs, snails, rocks, leaves. Things I go out of my way to avoid, he wants to experience up close. Dad was fascinated by the little things too. If there was a bird in the tree outside the house, he was all aflutter. I gave him many a birdhouse over the years. He transformed old floor lamps into birdfeeders. As I’m sure you can imagine, our backyard was classier than an atrium at the Ritz.
Max wears mismatched clothes and food on his face. So did Dad. Stevie Wonder picked out his daily ensemble, and he often saved a little taste of supper on the tip of his nose for later. It always boggled me that he didn’t know that dab of gravy was there, with his eyes just north of the spot.
Max stashes every coin he comes across into his piggy bank. Two dimes is more than a quarter, obviously, because two is more than one. He has no concept of money yet, but knows it’s good to save it. Dad was the same way. He liked to know there was lots in the bank, but never wanted to use it for much beyond his annual green fees and paying his kids’ tuition. Mom handled the finances. Dad counted his change to see if he had enough for a lime drink at the Esso.
Max says whatever he darn well feels like. He yells “Your pizza is yucky!” at Boston Pizza, and “Someone farted!” in the mall bathroom. Dad spoke his mind too, and gave zero shits about the opposition. He often gave his two cents on CBC radio. Once, at a Liberal rally, he called Danny Williams a dictator, that’s how many shits he didn’t give. That comment made the news and inspired a skit on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. My dad was totally rad.
Everything is a race to Max. First one to the breakfast table, first one to the car, first one anywhere wins wins WINS! Dad always had his foot on the starting line too. As we walked leisurely to church on Sunday mornings, out of the blue he’d scream “I’ll beat ya to the pew!” and start sprinting toward the church, cackling maniacally, prayerbook under his arm like a baton. I could never catch him.
Ask Max what his favourite place in the world is. One time out of ten, he’ll say “Chuck E. Cheese in Florida” but the other nine times he’ll say “home.” There’s no place like home for Max. Or for Dad. Although he could afford to travel the world, he was content to chip golf balls in the garden, read books by Michael Crummey and Wayne Johnston, write poems on the backs of old envelopes, and grow a few strawberries. He had everything he needed right under his nose (and, of course, a snack for later on top of it.)
It’s no wonder Dad’s book, Fogo Island Boy, is about his childhood. It was fresh in his memory, because in many ways he was still that “rhubarb rogue”, carving his initials into splittin’ tables, bucking carrots, and kissing girls under Barr’d Island flakes. He was a senior citizen when he died, but he was never an old man to me. He was always young. He was forever full of life, right up till the moment the life ran out. Even when he was fighting cancer, he sat there and wrote a goddamn book. Beat that. He would not ask for pity. The Fogo Island boy would keep on playing, every day, until the sun went down.
Max won’t know Poppy Jim, but maybe he’ll be lucky enough to inherit some of that magic that never grows old. I’m hoping for some myself. The kind of magic that preserves “the innate poetry of childhood”, and allows us to forever stay “a part of Nature’s impulsive heart.”
I love that poem by American poet, Christopher Morley. I’m not sure who it reminds me of more, my father or my son. I guess it’s both.
The greatest poem ever known
Is one all poets have outgrown:
The poetry, innate, untold,
Of being only four years old.
Still young enough to be a part
Of Nature’s great impulsive heart,
Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree
And unselfconscious as the bee.
And yet with lovely reason skilled
Each day new paradise to build;
Elate explorer of each sense,
Without dismay, without pretense!
In your unstained transparent eyes
There is no conscience, no surprise:
Life’s queer conundrums you accept,
Your strange divinity still kept.
Being, that now absorbs you, all
Harmonious, unit, integral,
Will shred into perplexing bits
Oh, contradictions of the wits!
And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,
may make you poet, too, in time —
But there were days, O tender elf
When you were Poetry itself!
— Christopher Morley, “To A Child”