I remember Dad’s hands even better than his face. They were stiff and leathery. But they were not the hands of a working man; he could scarcely drive a nail. He made a nightstand for me once. It was so wobbly, my glass of orange juice was always leaning for Florida.
In his forties, he mowed the top off his index finger. Yes, mowed. As in, avec lawnmower. The grass finally had its revenge. Beyond the old Smith Corona, machinery was not his forte.
He fished with his stepfather as a boy, and did some rabbit snaring when I was a child, but most of the calluses on his hands were the marks of a Callaway pitching wedge. If there were lumps or bumps on those sausage fingers, they were from holding a pen, or picking his nose.
Dad was a teacher, a writer, a lay minister, a volunteer, a voracious reader. He cried at his nieces’ weddings. He loved his mother. He called his sisters every other night. He grew strawberries. He had a rock garden. He fed the birds. He wrote poetry. Not exactly the kind of person you associate with fighting, but that’s what Dad was to me. A fighter. He had gentle hands and gigantic balls.
He didn’t fight with his fists. (Thank goodness; that reattached index finger would have been his Achilles heel.) He didn’t use a weapon either, though he swung a sword around his classroom like Hamlet in a mismatched shirt and tie. As long as I can remember, he was always quietly fighting for or against something – with radio commentary, with articles, with letters. With words glorious words.
When I was still in elementary school, I remember having a letter sent home from the principal. Myself and a couple other girls had hid one of our friend’s sneakers in the garbage can. It never crossed our minds that the janitor would be taking out the trash that night. We all lied about the sneaker’s whereabouts, of course, trying to escape the principal’s wrath. (Seventh grade was not my finest hour.) Once the truth came out, the principal sent home an especially harsh letter. Dad felt it was unjust and wrote a letter in reply, defending my character and those of my friends. We made a stupid mistake, but we weren’t criminals. Dad would have made a good judge.
Dad was also the guy you went to if you were having trouble getting your EI fixed up. He’d make the phone calls and write the letters until hard-working Joe Blow got what he deserved. Dad would have made an excellent lawyer.
He was always advocating for rural Newfoundland. His obsession with CBC news was a major cause of my teenage angst. If Dad ever came close to beating me as a child, it was when I was singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go during the Fisheries Broadcast. He had to know everything that was going on in the province, especially if it affected the outports he held so dear. He had a fierce interest in politics and frequently called into CBC Radio. (Ted Blades remembers him well.) A few years back, just before Danny Williams was reelected, Dad made a brazen comment at a Liberal rally, calling Williams a “Fuhrer”. Liberal candidate Gerry Reid took the heat, but it was Dad who uttered the words. It made headlines and inspired a skit on 22 Minutes starring Mark Critch as “der Fuhrer” Danny. Dad was not afraid to stand up to the big guy, or the rich guy. He was smart and sharp-tongued. He provoked. He would have made a great blogger.
Just before Williams became Premier, Dad was President of the (would-be) Windmill Bight Golf Course. He was THIS CLOSE to seeing it to fruition. But the ecology people and the new PC government shut ‘er down. The blueprints of fairways were soon pushing up daisies. Dad knew when to fight, and when to concede. He scarcely mentioned the golf course again. Instead, he put his energy into his short game on the links in Gander, where his name would one day be on the “In Memoriam” plaque and an annual tournament held in his memory. And lest we forget all the loonies spent on custard cones at Vonnie Lee’s in Gambo. Those things didn’t have a chance in a duel with Dad’s gob.
His last fight was with cancer. But he fought so cheerfully, it was hard to believe there was a battle going on at all. He golfed more that last summer than ever before. He even wrote a book. A BOOK. Pecking away at the computer for hours on end, the tubes of his chemo apparatus dangled into his lap. He fought off all negativity. He had an incurable optimism. Save those last three weeks of life, he was hopeful, productive and strong.
There is a poem by William Wordsworth that reminds me of Dad. The poetry scholars of the world would probably tell me I’m an idiot, that this poem is about actual soldiers, or hookers, or platypuses, or something. But there’s just something about it that sounds like him.
Who is the happy warrior? Who is he
What every man in arms should wish to be?
It is the generous spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought.
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn.
Read the rest here if you wanna.
I have a little warrior in the house now. A Jedi knight, to be precise. He has an arsenal of weapons, which is why we can’t have nice things. I remind him that this is just make-believe, that in real life fighting is never the answer. Not with weapons and fists, at least. As Mr. Miyagi would say, “Max-san, fighting always last answer to problem.”
I do believe in fighting, but the kind my father practiced. Challenging authority and the status quo with questions, criticism, even satire. We need opposition – in government, in the workplace, maybe even in the home. It’s what keeps us talking and thinking, exploring and progressing. Without challenging each other, we are mindless droids marching along in the Imperial Army.
If you have two eyes, a heart and a brain, there will always be something to fight for, and against. Because the world can be a cruel place sometimes. How can we make it better if we don’t politely point out all the bullshit that history and politics and religion have plopped in our laps?
Eventually, we all lose the big game of life, I know. But while we’re here, we do what we can, and hope our kids pick up a thing or two to carry the torch in our absence. I don’t want to a raise a bull, but I also don’t want to raise a sheep.
Dad has been gone four years to the day. Time flies when you’re having fun? Fuck. It still hurts when I think about it, especially when this song comes on the radio. (Dad had a Byrds cassette tape when I was a kid.) When I listen to CBC news, I think about the comments he would have been compelled to share. When I drive past Windmill Bight, I think of the golf course that was almost there. And when I look at my Max, I think of all the things he’s missed, and will never see. But time has dulled the ache and allows me to remember him with a lighter heart now. Which is why I can title this post “My Dead Dad’s Big Balls” and not feel bad about it. (I guess I inherited his balls.)
It’s funny how the significance of a lost loved one shifts. Maybe the flaws fall away over time, your mind elevating them to someone impossibly perfect. Maybe it just takes time for you to realize their true worth, once the sorrow and anger subside to let you see things more clearly. Over the last four years, I’ve gone from missing a parent to being proud of a person. I’ve gone from mourning my father to being inspired by a pretty cool guy. A guy with true grit, and the guts to speak his mind. A lifelong fighter…who just happens to be my dad. So these days, when someone asks me what I remember most about him, I say his hands, his face, his laugh, his terrible penmanship, his golf swing, and HIS BIG GIGANTIC BALLS.
Max proofed Poppy Jim’s book with his eyes closed. (April 2009)
Grabby McGrabberson at the launch of Fogo Island Boy. (October 2009)
Max helping me sign books at Coles. There are about 15 copies out there with his autograph in blue crayon. 15 was his limit. Diva. (November 2013)
Different subject matter. Different styles. Same balls.