We got a phone call yesterday. Totally unexpected. My dad died. Through some weird phone relay my cousin got in touch with us and my sister called him back and he had to tell us. Dad was just gone.
Now, this is a man who was in his 50s when I was born and still running marathons. At 82 he went to the gym regularly to lift weights and also spent a lot of time walking or biking. His mother, my Granny, lived into her 90s and I absolutely expected that we had at least 10 more years with him.
My relationship with my father has been complicated. There was a long period in my life when I didn’t like him very much at all. But this past 10 or 15 years were pretty good. He still never remembered my birthday, but he did have real, intelligent conversations with me. And I knew that at some point I had earned his respect, which was all I ever wanted.
Lately my mother and father, who separated when I was 3, started having polite conversations with each other while in the same room. It was a whole new world.
While I took issue in a lot of ways in how my father was a father to me, I had absolute no problem with the grandfather he turned out to be. My kid is his ninth grandchild (six girls, three boys) and he would proudly show her off to his friends. And I know that he would be so proud of how smart she is and how much thirst for knowledge she shows.
Intelligence, I think, is something he valued above all else. He had little patience for people who could not say what they meant or explain what they needed quickly and succinctly. That’s why he was such a good journalist and journalism professor.
And I, like many of his former students, hated the lessons that he was trying to teach me at the time, but then grew to understand them. In recent years he became one of the people that I went to talk to when I was trying to figure things out.
My dad was the one who planted the seed of taking the Masters program that I will start in September. When I asked him for help with my tuition this year, a loan, he told me that his children’s education is the number one priority. Always.
The last conversation I had with him was via email. I told him my convocation date, and he replied that he was out of the country until the day after and was sorry to have to miss it. I replied and told him that he’d just have to make sure he was there next year. And now he won’t be.
I am the youngest of my father’s five children. There is a large age gap between my sister and I and our half-siblings, but in recent years my dad started emailing all five of us together, and we’ve all started talking. Yesterday we reached out to one another. It used to be we only saw each other on Thanksgiving and Boxing Day – at least, whichever of us were in town – but now they feel a lot more like family.
But Boxing Day, the day the whole family gathered at my dad’s house and he lit a fire and baked a ham and we all talked around the room as though we’d seen each other only the week before. What’s going to happen to Boxing Day without my dad and without my dad’s house?
He still lived in the house he and my mother bought when they got married. It’s where we congregate. There was Boxing Day and Thanksgiving, sometimes Easter, and since my sister and I lived right around the corner he left a spare key and allowed us free reign over the attic space as a play house. He didn’t even seem to care when we tried to redecorate. There may still be some Teen Beat posters up there.
Boxing Day and Halloween will always be the days that I think of my dad. He loved Halloween. I don’t know what it was about it, but he loved answering the door and handing out candy and would report how many kids he got each year. For my kid’s first Halloween I drove across town so she would trick-or-treat at my dad’s door. Last October Joe was out of town and we just went to dad’s house and trick-or-treated around my old neighbourhood.
Boxing Day this year is going to be very quiet.