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Between the Memories: The Father I Knew

I came into this world close to midnight, which is why my father tended to forget and mistake the following day as my birth date. That’s what he told me. But the real reason was more than that. As a sea captain, he wasn’t present for my birth. I’m sure he’d rather have been with my mother to welcome me, but instead was traveling the East Asian ports on his three-month rotation. The radio operator would have learned the news before Dad was notified. I can only imagine how he must have reacted, out at sea away from us, how he must have felt when he held me for the first time after returning and how he must have missed us as the rotations continued, with me not recognizing him when he came home.

The strangeness I felt in those early years, he must have felt that too, but I’ll never know how much or how much more. I knew it in his eyes, though, when he told me the precious time he’d lost with me while on that cargo ship, how I shied away from him, my own father, and the chance to bond with me properly, gone.

He made up for all of that many times over. At least I thought of it that way.

Words never get lost in pictures. My baby album has a collection of snaps with all the significant people in my life: mom, dad, grandparents, and others. I looked the same in most of the pictures, unimpressed, I assume, from being passed from one set of arms to another. For Dad, it looked like he hadn’t been away from me at all.

My father retired from merchant marine life and slowly made his adjustment to life on land. We moved from India to England, and then to Canada where Dad became a Port Operations Manager. He was responsible for the container vessels that made their stop through the seaway, becoming lifelong friends with several of the ship’s captains and receiving dinner invites to dine on board with us. As long as the St. Lawrence Seaway was open, he worked hard, even sending off those ships on Christmas Eve, but never missing Midnight Mass with us. As tired as he was he’d even help Mom pack up the remaining gifts with every corner perfectly folded and taped.

I disliked math right through grade school. Dad would sit with me many evenings, trying to impart some of what he learned to me with little success. Then there was the slide rule method, another trial of mine. Dad’s was stored in a well-worn but beautiful leather case from his seafaring days. “Don’t lose it,” he warned but lent it to me anyway.

I’m not sure if Dad was ever a true adolescent. He lost his mother on his 11th birthday and soon after the Second World War attended nautical school. Life was work. He’d often ask us “What do you want to do with your life?” It’s too early for that, I’d think. But Dad didn’t.

As for moving out, Dad believed we’d remain home until we got married. “Why leave?” he’d ask. Once I rented a friends’ apartment for a summer. He watched from the porch steps while I packed the car with Mom. She told me later he barely said a word when I left and was quiet for some time. The longer, more permanent moves affected him less, but the hugs got tighter.

Dad would write his own message in my birthday cards. He never forgot to include “I loved you the first and I’ve loved you the longest.” I still have those cards, packed away and take them out to read. I run my fingers over his script, feeling his love as he penned those words.

I think of Dad’s toast at my wedding. He shared being absent at my birth and how I changed so much while he was at sea that first year. To me, it was the perfect speech, my father, honest about the past and his regret about being away, then feeling joy at seeing me grow, and just as fulfilled seeing me married. He’d come full circle.

My daughter arrived early, but not by much. Mom and Dad were the first to show at the hospital, a two-hour trek from their home. Dad held out his arms to hold our baby, the first grandchild. He’d carry her until she was too big to be held, and then would sit beside her, watching.

Breastfeeding was an adjustment and we received a lot of “advice.” On one of their visits in those first weeks, Dad passed me a blue binder. I opened it to find a whole manual on the subject that he’d printed out. He muttered something about how I might find it useful and said nothing else. I cried after he left, knowing he must have felt helpless seeing me struggle. That was one thing he couldn’t fix himself. I think I loved my father even more that day.

Years passed and three more grandchildren arrived with my father soaking in every moment with them. He and my mom traveled a lot, too, going on cruises, family reunions, and pilgrimages.

Then Mom got ill. In the five years that she was sick, Dad and I, along with my siblings, spent a good chunk of time in doctor’s offices, hospital wards, and chemo rooms. I knew what was coming, but I’m not sure Dad did. Along with his despair, he showed early signs of dementia. And when Mom died, we lost some of Dad, too.

Making funeral arrangements with your remaining parent is a heartbreaking milestone. With nothing pre-planned, we were actually thankful to be busy. After everyone returned home, it was my father and I who finalized the grave marker. He was pleased with his choice of praying hands with a rosary, a musical staff, and the prayer “Jesus I Trust in You” engraved on the bottom.

My father needed more care than we could manage, so the condo he shared with Mom was sold and he moved to a residence. The mementos were put aside, along with family photos and whatever else he could take with him. Sorting through those things with Dad, things that he owned with Mom for more than 50 years was hard. It was truly the most painful thing I have ever done.

At first, the scrabble games at his new home were a welcome distraction for a man who would literally run circles around someone with his word-building skills. His interest in that game soon faded, though, and instead, I’d find him in his room most days, playing the CD mom had recorded, her voice filling the small unit and sometimes the hallway outside.

Dad forgot the simplest of things with his growing dementia. Even then, he was determined to carry on with his routines. One day he got lost in the snow on a walk to a friend’s house. I was at work when he called. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “I’m okay.”

We moved our father to palliative care after news of his advanced colon cancer. I watched old movies with him and he even indulged me in a game of cards, though I’ll admit I did play both hands. My brother and sister visited. When I brought Dad some Happy Meals, he’d have the fries and milkshake first, then make a small effort to eat the burger. We’d even have a handful of cheese puffs together until the nurse warned me Dad was having trouble with solid food. The lunch tray arrived one day with his whole meal pureed, including the dinner roll with butter. Until that time, he didn’t mind being helped to eat. He’d savour every dollop like a chef sampling a dish. But that mush was not so palatable, and he refused to have more than a few spoons.

For a man who was bigger than life to us, I sat more and more in the quiet with him, exchanging few words and over time saying nothing. He would give me a quick glance when I arrived to sit with him, acknowledging my presence. Sometimes he spoke my name and I breathed a sigh of relief. I would think, to myself “he still knows who I am -that’s good.” None of that really mattered as I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

During this month, when we honour the Fathers in our lives, I pay tribute to my beloved father once more. Forever grateful for his presence in my life, he is always in my heart.

God bless you, Dad.

Happy Father’s Day to everyone.

Copyright © 2021 All rights reserved, Jackie Kierulf, writer.

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One comment on “Between the Memories: The Father I Knew

  • Brenda Damen
    June 25, 2021 | 4:14 pm

    So beautifully and lovingly written. The sentence: “I run my fingers over his script, feeling his love as he penned those words” could as easily be said the other way around. He would feel the love of his daughter in the texture of this letter she has written to him.

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