Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten Years Gone

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my father's death, and I wouldn't have remembered had I not put a reminder in my calendar.

I know that sounds terrible, but if you knew our relationship you would understand.

My father left us when I was five. At 27, he didn't want to be tied down with a wife and three kids. He wanted to be responsible for himself only—a free spirit who could come and go as he pleased.

My mother gave me this explanation when I was an adult, living on my own. I might have dismissed her story as coming from the embittered person who was left behind with the three children. But my mom certainly wasn't bitter: she knew that she was better off without my dad and wouldn't have given up her kids for the world.

My dad himself confirmed this story when I was in my mid 30s, when he also told me that the biggest regret in his life was marrying my mother. He said that he should never have shown up at the altar. When I replied with an "I'm glad you did marry Mom. Otherwise, [my sisters] and I wouldn't have been born," his response was one that even today rings loudly and clearly in my head.

“Sometimes, I think you’d have been better off not being born.”

In the first few years after my father left us, my sisters and I barely saw him. He still worked in Ottawa but we didn't know where he lived. My mother had trouble getting ahold of him on the phone, to get him to visit us and spend some time with his kids. My memories of the time that we did spend together are filled with hours spent with his friends, watching baseball games on TV or just sitting around talking amongst themselves, while my sisters and I entertained ourselves. When he was supposed to be spending quality time with us, he would instead follow his passion of train-watching: we'd sit by crossings or near the rail yards, waiting for the trains to come through, confirming that they were keeping to their schedules. My father would prattle on about the types of locomotives; my sisters and I, bored beyond belief in the back seat of the car.

To keep us sweet, there was always the promise of a trip to Dairy Queen afterwards. Bribery?

There were many times where my mother could not get in touch with my dad at all. She had no idea where he was, whether he was dead or alive. I remember hearing one-sided arguments over the phone about child support; namely, that my father wasn't paying it. I learned later that my folks fought in court over child support, that my dad was ordered to pay, did so for a while, but then stopped again. My mother, who eventually remarried a man who took my sisters and me on as his own, was happy to support us. And with that, my dad felt he was off the hook.

I still remember one time, when I was aged somewhere between 8-10, when my dad came to our door. I was the one who answered it, and I didn't even recognize him. I didn't know my own dad. That's how seldom I saw him when I was young.

It wasn't until my older sister moved out that my dad made more appearances, but even at that, we only saw him a couple of times a year. And it didn't take long to catch on to why he seemed to take more of an interest in us: we had grown up and were no longer little kids. And because he no longer lived in Ottawa, he needed a place to crash when he visited. He used my sister for her sofa.

When I had a place of my own—when Lori and I were living together and my sister was no longer living in Ottawa—my dad would crash with us. He would come to town with little notice, expecting us to drop any plans that we may have made and commit our time to him. Once, when Lori and I weren't expecting him, he showed up on our doorstep. He had dinner with us and then said, "well, I'd better get my things from my car." That was our first notification that he was going to be staying at our apartment. He didn't ask; he just assumed.

When I was in my mid 30s, the relationship between my dad and I really deteriorated. It happened shortly after Lori and I went on vacation in Southern Ontario, where we camped, hiked, and then planned to spend some time on the Niagara Peninsula, exploring the wine region and taking in some plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. My dad, then living in Ancaster, near Hamilton, asked us to make a side trip to see him. We hadn't planned on it, because while his town was along the way, it was a bit of a detour and Lori and I had plans to see a play. But I told my dad that I would contact him the day before we would be passing through, and we would arrange a time to meet up.

I spent hours in a nowhere town, at a phone booth, instead of hiking, trying, without success, to reach my dad. It was a wasted day, with no plans made. And so Lori and I continued with our original plans, only we had that wasted day.

When we finally returned to Ottawa, I called my dad and asked him what had happened. That we tried for hours to reach him. His answer: "I forgot."

He forgot to spend time with his son? I wonder how that would have gone over had he planned to come to Ottawa and I went away, forgetting about him?

And so I hung up on him. When the phone rang again, I lifted the receiver and hung up again. And then, for the next half hour, I ignored the ringing phone.

When I finally answered it, I had it out with my dad. I talked about how he never thought of his kids, how he was selfish. How, when he did think of calling us or visiting us, he was always negative, always complaining about something or someone, always talking about how the world had shit on him. And he was a racist, with his ugly comments about Pakis, Spics, and (ironically) Chirpers (both of his folks came from the U.K.)—something I couldn't tolerate.

I told him that for the growing years of my life, he was almost never there. That he only took an interest in his kids when he felt that we had something to offer him. My father was a taker, not a giver. Not when it came to his kids, that is.

We talked on the phone for more than three hours. I told him how I felt about him. "To me," I said, "you've never seemed like more than an uncle that I see only once in a while. But with your negativity, you're my obnoxious uncle."

"As long as you don't hate me," he said at one point in our conversation. "I don't think I could handle it if any of my kids hated me."

"I don't hate you," I said. "Right now, I don't feel anything for you."

I don't know if I said that to hurt him, but I don't think I did. I didn't want to hurt him; I just wanted to be open and honest about my feelings towards him. Not just during that phone call, but for my entire life.

When my dad left our family, I was hurt. I wanted to run away with him. When my mother remarried, I made it loudly clear that no other man was going to replace my dad. As I got older, I had faced many disappointments over not being able to reach my dad, or in being promised of a visit, only to be let down when that visit never took place. As a young adult, I saw my sisters and I being used for a place to stay. At one time, we were used by our dad as a way to impress a love interest—even though he had nothing to do with our upbringing, he wanted to show us off, to show that he was a doting parent (it failed miserably for him).

After our long phone conversation, our relationship was never the same. I only cared to talk to him if he had pleasant things to say. He had to take an interest in what was going on in my life, and he had to remember things so that he could bring them up in subsequent conversations. He had to actually tell me what was going on in his life—who his friends were, what he did for fun (besides watching baseball), what he actually cared about. I learned a little about his life, but I could tell he wasn't comfortable with our chats. And the calls came less and less frequently. I never initiated a call.

Shortly after Sarah was born, my dad came to town. My older sister was living in Ottawa again, so he stayed with her. But I didn't see him: I had made plans to repaint a room in our house, and I wasn't going to cancel that chore. When the Browns had a family reunion, I didn't want to attend. I didn't want to be my dad's son. I didn't want to pretend we had any sort of relationship. At the last Brown reunion, I had heard too many times from relatives who didn't really know me how wonderful a father I had. I didn't need to hear that again; especially because this time, my father was sick.

When Sarah was five months old, my father came to town again, and this time I visited him. He met my daughter for the first time, and I saw him hold her, cuddle her, and show real love. I had never seen him show so much love for anyone. And it made me wonder: was he ever like that with me? With my sisters?

I never saw him again. He died two months later.

I remember when I learned the news. I arrived home from work: Lori was still on maternity leave, and she had heard the news from my mother. She was waiting for me to walk through the front door to give me the news. He had had a heart attack. He had gone quickly, by all accounts. A neighbour, who was planning to share breakfast, found him. He had died while brushing his teeth, before going to bed the night before.

I took the news calmly. I told Lori I was fine. I called my mother, looking for more information. Was there going to be a funeral? No: he donated his body to the medical research facility at McMaster University. What was to become of his belongings? He had already made one of his brothers the executor of his will, but there was no one to box up his belongings in his apartment. My older sister was going to go and help my uncle. I agreed to go along.

My father died a lonely man with few possessions. Packing up his belongings, I learned very little about what kind of person he was. There were few pictures. Few things that showed a man beyond his love of trains and baseball. I left his apartment feeling nothing but pity for a man that wanted to be responsible for no one but himself, and who ended up with no one but himself.

It's been 10 years since he's been gone and I had to write this occasion down to remember it at all. I remember remarking on the day of his death that he died exactly one month after 9/11. That's how I remembered the date. I remembered the one-year anniversary for the same reason.

How do I feel? I'm okay. I'm sorry he died, but he was a man I really didn't know. When he was absent, I didn't think about him. In the 10 years that he's been gone, I haven't really thought about him.

But because he was my dad, I feel that I should do something to commemorate the day he left for good.

And if this isn't the warm commemoration that you would have expected from a son, I hope that you now understand why.


  1. Wow, what a powerful and moving story, Ross. I completely sympathize and (sadly) empathize. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was taken aback by reading this, but the recounting of your experiences brings it all to light. You've given me much to think about and be thankful for.

    For what it's worth, it has probably made you the great dad you are today.

  3. Thanks for sharing such an intense part of your life. The most admirable thing about your perspective is that you are entirely honest about your emotions and you understand your feelings deeply and profoundly - all of this came through in this piece.