I’VE FINALLY BECOME SMART ENOUGH TO REALIZE WHAT MAKES  A TRUE HERO, AND ON FATHER’S DAY, I KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR THE GREATEST ONE I KNOW

     My father has a story he likes to tell whenever he’s asked why he refused to hold me when I was a baby.  It happened one at a county fair when I was only a few months old.  If I remember correctly, we were at the Ancaster fair (or the Lincoln one, I think the version changes on who he tells it to), and he was holding me in front of him when I decided I wanted to try a little skydiving and planted my itty bitty baby feet on his chest and pushed with all my newborn might, launching myself out of his hands like a missile in a diaper.  Fortunately he caught me a sliver of a second before the ground broke my erstwhile fall, and from that day forward, he decided to play it safe and held me as little as possible.

I think about that story every Fathers Day.  How my father essentially saved me from myself and I think that’s the biggest part of a Fathers (and Mother’s) job description.  I can’t count the times my father has bailed me out of my own stupidity, and somehow still managed to keep a head level enough not to disown me (I’m sure he’s been tempted on one or more occasion).  I can’t count the number of times he (and my mother) acted as a lifeline, allowing me to keep my head above water and I could never hope to count the number of times he was there to listen to me rant about work or challenges or life in general.  Or offer me sage counsel during times of trial or failure, times that happened more than I’d like to admit.  And only recently have I become wise enough myself to listen, and regret the many years where I wasn’t smart enough to.

And while I can’t count the number of times my father was there to give me a helping hand (or offer me one during times I was too stubborn or blind to see it), I could never imagine how many times he wanted to knock some sense into my think head, mostly during my teenage years.  While I wasn’t a typical teenager, my father still had plenty to put up with during those wasted years.  I was an outcast, not the worst mind you, but with the exception of my final two years in high school, I shared the same postal code with some of the kids who grew up harbouring violent grudges (think Steve Buscemi in Billy Madison), and looking back on it now, I took my frustration and self-pity out on my family, primarily my father.  I have a well-earned reputation for being a sarcastic, wise-cracking jackass who needs to learn a little more verbal discretion sometimes (I’m pretty much banned from church) and I cut some of those nasty teeth on those around me, especially my father.  Thinking back on it now, there were probably plenty of times my father wanted to kick my ass and I more than deserved it every occasion.  Hell, I would have kicked my ass for just some of the grief I gave him had the positions been reversed.  Even today, I scratch my head, wondering where he found the resolve not to (in that same vein, I also wonder how my long-suffering mother put up with the two of us, locking horns for no other reason than I was a scrawny teenager full of hormones and stupidity).

It’s only recently that I have begun to understand how lucky I truly am.  How blessed.  I wasn’t merely an outcast at school, but struggled to find acceptance in the tiny little town where I grew up.  But my father quietly encouraged my curiosity when I began questioning the church I had always believed in without question before, and he silently nurtured my political beliefs as they began to grow and mature, often opposing those he held.  When it looked like a group of pseudo neo-Nazis at my high school were going to decorate the ground with my brains after I mouthed off about them robbing and urinating on one of my friends, my mother confided in me that my father was quietly observing the situation and was prepared to bring hell down on anyone who touched me.  I inherited my appetite for reading from my father, and he’s a far more voracious reader than I am (I have co-workers, who if they read this, will probably find that hard to believe), but our tastes couldn’t be further apart. But the fact that he’s held little interest in the fiction I have occasionally dabbled in writing myself has never stopped him from prodding me to keep going, to push myself and test my own boundaries.  And even though he may not be a fan of the things I am drawn to, the things that go bump in the night and creatures of pure imagination that sail across the stars and slither in the shadows, he’s still my best supporter.

Perhaps the best example of my father’s belief in letting me be my own person is Canada’s national passion; the sport of hockey.  In small town Canada, the local hockey rink is perhaps the most important building in town, more important than schools, churches, libraries and even city hall.  Hockey is the religion of small town Canada, the arena the altar where it’s worshipped, and to say my lack of interest during my early years went against the grain would be like saying that Elvis was only a slightly successful musician.  To add a little extra fuel to the proverbial fire, my father was a long time coach and there were a number of occasions that both he and my mother were stopped in the middle of the street by friends and neighbours alike, demanding that I be forced to play, regardless of what I wanted (such is the mentality of the small Canadian town).  But never once did either my mother or my hockey coaching father surrender to the small-minded pressure of their peers and force me to pick up a hockey stick.  It wasn’t until I became a teenager that my interest in hockey naturally grew, and then it was purely my choice.

And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to respect the man my father is.  A decorated firefighter, he was awarded medals for saving lives when he wasn’t on duty.  He was recognized by the province of Ontario for his volunteer work in girls softball, coaching a team to a provincial championship in a time when women’s sports were considered irrelevant.  And while he never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to, he made sure I kept my word.  When I wanted to quit clarinet lessons after finding out it was work (yeah, I studied clarinet for a year, shut up yer face), he made me stick it out for the full year I had committed to.  Whenever I wanted to quit soccer (my preferred sport that was eventually replaced by hockey) because I was clumsy and not as good as the other kids (and they let me know it), he made me stick with it for the summer, because he knew I’d be first in line for registration the following spring.  Every time I decided to wallow in self-pity, he was there to kick my butt out of it (or at least try) and the only reason I continued to study karate long enough to earn my black belt was because he prodded me forward (even on the occasions where I was deliberately failed, the test being to see how I would handle adversity).  There are some people whose father left them when they were barely able to walk, was never there to offer protection or guidance; I had a man of his word who believed in the value of your promise to call father.  He (and my mother) even dared to believe in me even during the many, many times I refused to believe in myself.

Thinking on it now, everything good about me, my values, my tolerance, my patience, I got from my father (and you too, mom), and everything about me I wish I didn’t have, well, that’s all me.  I’m not where I’d like to be in life (yet), and there are times, late at night, when I worry I’ve let my father down.  That I haven’t justified his faith in me with deed or accomplishment.  And then I smile and realize if I ever admitted that to him, he’d tell me to stop being stupid.  The truth of the matter is, if I were twice the man I am right now, I’d still only be half the man my father is and his example pushes me to strive better.

So here’s what it boils down to-the world is a haven of threats and danger, populated with devils and monsters clothed in greed using fear and violence as their tools.  There is no shortage of fallen angels or suave demons waiting to seduce children with temptation and foolish indulgence and many of the bogey men who stalk us are beasts of our own making.  The bitter truth is sometimes there’s precious little parents can do to protect their children, whether from the world or from themselves.  Sometimes it’s all a father can do to wisely let his sons and daughters endure the storms when they can, fight alongside them when they need, embrace them when it’s over and help them pick up the pieces later.  I often wonder how I would cope if I ever have the honour of becoming a father, how to manage with all the fears and uncertainty and eventual heartbreak.  People tell frightened new parents that there’s no such thing as a parenting textbook, but should the day ever arrive that I’m gently cradling a child of my own in my arms, I could do a hell of a lot worse than to follow my Father’s example.

I was (and still am) a child of imagination, wonder and mystery.  I live in a world of nightmares and miracles, where werewolves and vampires and other citizens of the dark are kept at bay by bravery and magic.  And while the world I chose to live in growing up included the likes of Batman and Superman and countless other super heroes of lore, my father is, and will always remain, my greatest hero and it’s only now and only through these words that I have the courage to say out loud that I love you Dad.  Maybe one day soon I can be a stronger man, but only because of your example.  And in the meantime, if I fall, I know that, like all those years at the Ancaster (or was it Lincoln) fair, you’ll catch me.

Shayne Kempton

 A TRUE HERO

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