What I Didn't Know

The death of my dad Jan. 19, 2006, four days after his 89th birthday, was probably the most devastating and horrendous day of my life. My dad was my life and soul, he was the reason I actually made it to adulthood and became a relatively normal adult. And although he never really said it, I always knew that he loved me very very much and would do anything for me.

When Dennis was diagnosed with cancer, my dad visited us in the hospital every single day, despite the fact that I knew he hated hospitals. He would make the half hour journey, park on a side road (because parking there was free, as opposed to parking in the hospital parking lot, which charges people their firstborn child per half hour of parking), and make the arduous walk to the hospital and sit in our room, just to keep me company. He wouldn't stay long because he would start feeling ill (he hated hospitals that much), and I was always sad when he left, but I understood, and was so honoured that he would make the effort to come every day and sit with us. There were plenty of months that he would pay our mortgage since neither Mr. Handsome nor I was working at the time. He gave us money to help pay for Milly's braces, and he bought us a new washing machine when ours died after our basement flooded. He would put a $20 bill in my hand every Sunday before I headed back to Cornwall after a weekend visiting Ottawa, and he always told me I always had a home here, no matter what. And I always knew it. Always.

When Daddy died, my brothers and I had to go through his stuff and divide it all, which I did not think I could possibly do. First of all, we were dealing with Leonard, who was not a stable individual, and lord knows what he might be like through what was already going to be an extremely difficult process. Second of all, going through your dad's personal belongings was tantamount to slowly twisting and pulling your toenails out with rusty pliers.

What we found was eye-opening, a light shining on the soul of my father, who he really was and what he truly believed. He had an old suitcase that he had brought over from Germany with him after World War II. This valise he kept, and in it he put everything that was important and dear to him. There were almanacs and journals from wartime. There were old, faded and torn photos of hated Nazis that I assume my dad kept just as a reminder of the kind of hell he went through in prisoner-of-war and concentration camps. There were German and Polish coins, and every letter he ever received from his nephew Ted, whom he almost adopted once he landed in Canada to start his life over again.

He also had a stash of neatly clipped bills, one-dollar and two-dollar Canadian bills that were no longer in circulation. On each one, he had one of his children's names scratched along the top. He also had bills that he saved specifically for my own two children. This was my dad's way to preserve the past, and also I think he believed, in his weird and wonderful way, that having these bills would bring us a lot of money some day. He wanted to make sure we had what he believed to be important.

What affected me the most, however, was when I pulled out a stack of cards and drawings that were tucked safely into a corner of the suitcase. I started to look through them, the elastic holding them together snapping into dust from old age. And what I discovered was that he had kept every single card, letter and picture I had ever given him. Even the schmaltzy birthday cards, and the postcards I sent him from Alberta when I lived there for two years. And the picture I had drawn him of a beautiful flower when I was five years old and believed he was god. Every. Single. One. I was beyond shocked.

My dad was one of the most logical, unemotional beings on this earth. He did not show emotion. Period. He was strong and able, and showing any kind of fear or sadness was just not acceptable. God forbid he tell his kids he love them, adore them, think they are the greatest thing since perogies. He never said it, but he showed it in tiny ways, and often he hid it from everyone but himself.

I wish I had known this about my father. I probably would not have been as quick to judge him as I sometimes was, when as he got older he began refusing to come over to visit, or he would come very late or only stay for a little while before making some excuse and heading back home. I sometimes labeled him "inconsiderate", "uncaring", and "a jerk". I loved him more than dearly, but grew more impatient with him as he got older and more rigid, unwilling (I thought) to bend to someone else's desires. I now understand he was just getting old, and it was getting really hard for him to do just about anything, including getting dressed in the mornings, and he hid those things from the people he loved because he didn't want us worrying about him even more than we already did. We had lives to live, he would say, and his was almost over. He didn't complain, he just sank deeper into his shell, his cocoon, his world becoming smaller and more compact, and filling with the fear of what was to come.

And I was too buried in my own little life, my own wants, to put myself in his shoes for even one solitary second, and try to feel what it must be like to have a body start failing you on a daily basis, to not be able to chew your food properly any longer and to even have trouble cutting your food because of the beginnings of Parkinson's Disease, to have a hell of a time getting in and out of your car because you didn't have the strength in your legs. I chose to ignore those silent, but obvious, signs and pretend they weren't there, because it was easier that way for me to get on with my day, to pretend all was well, and that no, there was nothing wrong with my dad, he was fine and was going to live for another 20 years.

I now try as much as is humanly possible not to be as selfish, and to not judge others, not anyone, regardless of their actions and words. There is always more than we know or are willing to know, and it is our job to accept and believe that we are all in this thing called life together, and all we're trying to do is get through the day the best we know how.


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