FORGET SUPERMAN, ON FATHER’S DAY, I KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR THE GREATEST HERO 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 at a county fair when I was only a few months old and while he was holding me, I decided I wanted to try a little skydiving and planted my baby pieds on his chest and pushed with all my newborn might, launching myself out of his hands like a missile wearing a diaper. Fortunately he caught me a sliver of a second before the ground could break my 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 father’s (and a mother’s) job description. I can’t count the number of 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 (though I’m sure he’s been tempted on one or two occasions). Or 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 to listen, and regret the many years when 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 thick 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 I took a lot of that frustration and self-pity out on my family, primarily my father. I have a well-earned reputation for being a sarcastic, wisecracking 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, particularly my father. All these years later wonder where he found the resolve not to kick my posterior on the many occasions I probably deserved it (and 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).
I’ve finally 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 town where I grew up. But my father quietly encouraged my curiosity when I began questioning the world 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, 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.
The fact that he’s held little interest in the fiction I have occasionally dabbled in writing 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 biggest 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. But neither of my parents surrendered to the small-minded pressure of their peers and I was never forced to pick up a hockey stick. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that my interest in hockey grew, and even 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 girl’s 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, come at me), 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, 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 to test how I handled adversity). There are some people whose father left them when they were barely able to walk and were never there to offer protection or guidance; I had a man of his word who believed in the value of your promise to call my 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 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 bogeymen 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 far worse than to follow my Father’s example.
And in the meantime, if I fall, I know that my father, like all those years ago at the county fair, will be there to catch me.
Love You Dad