We open on a small wrench and a pair of muddy training wheels on the front step, one wheel still spinning slowly.
We hear happy voices in the distance and cut to see a little girl, about five, on a wobbly red bike, her dad running alongside, his hands on top of hers on the handlebars.
The iconic picture of parenthood. But it’s not a picture of me and my dad. Not even close.
Here’s how that scene looks with me and my dad in it:
I’m on the bike pedaling like a Christmas lunatic, my red and white streamers whipping around in the wind that I’m generating with my fierce ginger power. I glance over my shoulder to surely see Dad running along beside me but nope, he’s not there. Well, he is, but waaaaaaay the fuck back there, shrinking in the background. I see him chuckle and wave then turn back to the house, hoping that I don’t crash but more importantly that his pen slash bookmark hasn’t rolled out from this month’s Reader’s Digest.
That’s the kind of parent he was. I don’t mean negligent or distracted, though maybe that was sometimes true. What I mean is, he got me started on things. He provided the means. He gave me a gentle push. And then he fucked off. Went back to his own world, checking on me occasionally to make sure I was still coasting along just fine.
Dad was a great speaker, writer and teacher, but he was not a great listener. You know what? He was a shitty listener. El shitto. This was especially apparent during my teenage years. I’d be talking, explaining something or other, and he’d be nodding and saying “yes” at intervals where “yes” made zero sense. Sometimes I’d say crazy shit like “I’m going to try cocaine today, okay Dad?” just to see if he was listening. He gave me the thumbs up on illicit drugs and teen pregnancy and Hitler at least 50 times.
I mean, I get it now that I’m the parent of a seven-year-old who talks endlessly about Pokemon and Minecraft. I nod and say “uh-huh” a lot while thinking “I want to die” and “Please, aliens, come and take me your planet.” It is really hard to be interested in something you’re just not, no matter how excited your kid is about it, no matter how much you love that kid.
Sometimes Dad’s parenting style suited me just fine, like when I came home drunk and plunked myself down on the couch a few feet away from him just to prove how undrunk I was. Dad would say, “Oh, you’re home. That’s good then. Goodnight, daughter. Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” On occasion he might even say, “you should pop some popcorn now.” (He could quote Shakespeare but didn’t know how to operate the microwave.) Maybe he really didn’t know I was drunk; he was way more in tune with the latest news on CBC than any developments in my life. (Damn you, Ted Blades.) Or maybe he totally knew but was just glad I was home safe which meant I had made some good decisions along the way and that was good enough for him.
That’s how he did the whole Dad thing. He just kind of let me go, and helped me get there without having too much to say about it. When I decided to go off to Halifax to study English after high school, he was like “okay then.” We used to joke that I would be a lawyer (he was a great debater and a big fan of true crime), but my career path was always mine to navigate. I knew I’d have my parents’ support, whatever I chose. Yes, even advertising. Dad called me every night when I was in university, and wrote me letters full of his trademark foolish inspiration (study hard, don’t eat yellow snow, etc.), and replenished my bank account – a little bit at a time (my folks were generous but they weren’t idiots).
Even when it came to boyfriends, Dad never had much to say. I dated a black guy during my freshman year and sent home a photo. Nice picture, Dad said. (My grandfather’s comments were a little more colourful.) I dated a couple hard tickets too. No problem, said Dad. Everyone was good. Everyone deserved a chance. Or maybe he paid so little attention he thought they were all the same guy.
When Andrew and I decided to get married, we knew we didn’t want a Jesusy ceremony. But Dad was a church-going man his whole life so I was a little nervous to break the news that he wouldn’t be walking his only daughter down the aisle toward the altar. His response? “You can get married at The Woods, or in the sticks, bushes, or alders. I will be there.” My favourite email from him, ever.
He was there alright, but he was sick. We could see it. A diagnosis came soon after. I was pregnant with Max when he had a tumour removed from his bowel. I was about to give birth when his second surgery — the only chance to extend his life — was a flop. I got to work helping him finish his book between feedings. I found him a local publisher who wouldn’t wait six months to get back to him; he didn’t have that kind of time. In October, less than three months before he died, he launched his book, Fogo Island Boy. I sat back and watched him glow, signing books for friends and fans at Chapters. He was like a kid in a candy store. Or maybe a kid on a bike, full tilt, cheeks flapping in the wind. I owed that crazy kid so much more.
That’s the thing. No matter what I was doing – riding a bike, performing on stage, or interviewing for a job – when I looked back and didn’t see Dad right there ready to catch me, it didn’t matter. I pedalled faster and harder, because I knew he was there to scrape me off the pavement. And I guess, with that kind of wind at your back, you just don’t fall very often.
Maybe that’s why his death didn’t stop me from striving to be happy. In the beginning, I thought everything was ruined forever. What was the point in anything anymore with Dad not here to see it? But with time I found perspective, by finding meaning in his death. He wasn’t there when I published a book of my own. He wasn’t there at the launch when I talked about how he inspired me. He wasn’t there when I launched my second human into the universe either. He was barely around long enough to meet the first one. It’s sad that he has missed so much, and that we have missed so much of him. But I guess I’m okay because I still feel him back there, ya know? The way he always was. Not holding my hand every step of the way, but in the background. The net beneath the trapeze. The trampoline below the burning building. He’s still playing that part for me somehow. A little through Mom. A little through memory. So much has changed, but in some ways it’s very much the same.
These days, we hear so much about helicopter parenting. Moms and Dads who hover around their kids, watching their every move, swooping in to save them at the first sign of trouble. I guess my dad was less like a helicopter and more like a spool of string on a kite, hanging out on the ground while the kite (that’s me) soared and looped and sometimes even nose-dived into crowds of innocent bystanders. I don’t think his style of parenting was intentional. He was just being himself. He truly did prefer to read and write and listen to the news than pay attention to the likes of me, silly lowly dirt child. But I think it all worked out somehow, so maybe he’s the model father after all. Maybe he is the one to emulate. What I learned from him: Don’t be your kids’ everything. Give them the tools they need to fix it themselves. Light the path but don’t walk it with them. And they’ll be okay when, one day, they’re writing about your birthday, and how you would have been 74 years old today, and what a great parent you were in your own weird way, and how they can let you go because you let them go a long time ago and that’s how they learned to fly.