51) The strongest man I ever knew: A memorial

Dear Dad,

I have some questions to ask you.  I’ve asked most of them already, when you were alive.  I’m sure you would remember those times; they were pretty heartfelt.  But you were unable to answer them.  I didn’t understand why, then, but I’m pretty sure I do now.  I’ve done a lot of work recently, on healing, and things that were once opaque, are starting to become transparent.  So, when I’m done asking these questions, I’m going to answer them for you.

This won’t help you now, and I’m sorry for that.  But it will help me.  It will help my sisters, I think, and it will help my kids.  And I hope, if it’s not mere hubris to say this, that it might help some other people too.  Because what you and I shared, is not unique to us.  It’s archetypal; it’s a pattern I know many others are living through as well.  And if there is time for anyone else to hear this message, and change, then…well, then here’s the message.

First, I want you to know, I love you.  I always did.  Even when I didn’t understand you or know how to connect with you.

When I “gave my heart to Jesus” and was “saved”, at age 11, I used to pray for you.  It broke my heart that you did not (at that time) believe the way that I did, and I was tormented beyond description that my faith was telling me that when you died, you were going to Hell, unless you also were “saved” in the way that I was.  It was incomprehensibly tragic to me that you — my Hero, my Champion, the person I idolized and believed in with every ounce of belief a little boy has, the man who taught me how to hammer a nail and fix a car and drive a snowmobile and stand up to the grade 4 bully in the schoolyard, the man who introduced me to car chases, the A-Team, cold beer and the joy of a good novel, the man with the infectious laugh and devil-may-care confidence, the man with the unflappable sense of Right and Wrong, the Gladiator who seemed afraid of nothing, who once made a biker gang leader shit his own pants in fear, the man who threatened Holy Hell against anyone who would hurt his family — how could such a man not be destined for Heaven?  

Many nights, I prayed for your soul.  I wept for you in my bed.  I offered my own soul to God, in exchange for yours, if only He, in His mercy, would let me take your place.  I don’t believe any of those things anymore — God and hell and all that — but man, I sure did then.  And I asked, begged, God to put me in Hell instead of you.  And when you did ‘get saved’, I truly rejoiced.

Yes, I love you.  I always did.

So, make no mistake here.  This is an act of Love, as best as I know how.  I’m sure this is not the perfect thing to do.  But I am imperfect, and waiting for perfection means waiting forever.  

I know you would hate this, and I know for sure some people, at least, who will criticize me something fierce for doing this —- saying it’s untrue, it’s an act of cowardice, it’s disrespectful, or god-knows-what. But it’s not any of those things. I know it’s true. I think it’s brave. I know it comes from profound respect. And so, I’m gonna take your lead on this.  You always told me to do what’s right, to tell the truth, and to hell with the consequences.  If people don’t like it, who gives a shit, right?  You’re the only one who has to live with yourself.

So Dad, you are the strongest man I ever knew.  But there are many things that I could never make sense of.

Why, when I was 10, then 11, then 12, then 13, and then 14, and I told you, and kept telling you, and kept telling you about things that were happening to me that should never happen to a child, why did you not protect me?  Sure, you listened, sympathized.  You explained that the person who did these things had, in your words, “an inferiority complex”.  But you never stopped it.  Never drew a line and stood your ground.  When I was taken to a counselor, you concluded that I was lying.  You bought me a dirtbike and filled it with gas, but when it really mattered, what happened? When I was taken to the hospital for unexplained blood in the toilet, you never, for five straight days, brought me a toothbrush.  I will never forget that.  These are things a child cannot understand.  Telling a child that they are suffering because of some adult’s “inferiority complex” does precisely nothing to actually make a difference to that child.  So why would such a strong man, the strongest man, who dedicated his whole career to protecting the vulnerable, fail to protect the one person who needed him the most?  Why did you just turn away?

Why, when I took back my heart from Jesus, at 15, and gave it to the god of Addiction instead, did you never ask me about it?  Talk to me?  Plug me into any of the resources that you knew would help?  Why did you just turn away?

Why, when this escalated to me ending up in a jail cell, did you never ask me about it?  Talk to me?  Heck, even get angry with me?  Why did you just turn away?

Why, when I left your home after grade 9, did you just let it happen?  Never ask me about it?  Talk to me?  Keep track of how I was doing?  Why did you just turn away?

And why on earth did you keep my belongings?  (This one I still can’t understand.)  My bedroom stuff? The presents I had been given?  Why did you give away my most beloved toys — favourite stuffies, toy cars — without even telling me or letting me have a say?  Why did you throw my stories, the ones I wrote in elementary school and proudly showed you, into the furnace and burn them up?  Why did I come home to find that my dog was put to sleep, and I never was told it was happening, never got a chance to say goodbye to her, my one companion through all those years of turmoil?  Did it never occur to you that these things might be valuable to a child?  Did you never wonder what messages they sent about that child’s own worth?

Why did you tell me, in probably every single conversation we had, from 1981 to 2018, how much bitterness you held towards my mom?  She forgave you long ago, so far as I know, but why could you never forgive her for whatever you perceived had happened?  And more important, why did you bring it up, every time, to her own children?  Why were the second-last words you ever said to me, on your deathbed, “Don’t tell your mother?”  Like what, she wasn’t supposed to find out you had died? Why was it so important to hold onto hate, right up to the end?

Why did you never, not once that I can remember anyway, tell me you were proud of how I turned out?  I know I said you did, in a letter I wrote in your last weeks of life, but to be honest, I was trying to do whatever I felt I could to bring some peace into your heart.  The truth is, you told me once, at my first wedding, that it was “classy.”  And your wife told me once that you were proud of me.  But I’m sorry, that’s it. Whatever else you felt, you kept to yourself.

Why did you, so far as I know, leave nothing for me, or your grandchildren?  Not that I particularly want anything, but…..really?  Nothing?  Even a memento? As just one example, out of your extensive, and very expensive, model car collection, which you were so proud of and told me about and showed me, several times, why did you not think that it might be nice for your grandkids to have one, even one, to remember you by?  To be fair, you did give one to my son, as I was leaving your house once, but the terrible truth of it all was that you did so because you had a double, and this one was broken — broken mirror, scratched roof, peeling paint.  Man, you should’a seen his eyes light up when I gave it to him, broken and all.  He still calls it his “special car”, and until now anyway, has never known that it was merely an afterthought, a flawed redundancy you didn’t want in your collection.  

Why did your family not have a funeral or memorial service for you?  Why did you, apparently, insist that we do nothing?  Why (so far as I know) were your children not even told that you were about to be cremated, finding out after the fact?  Why, when I tried to rally the family afterwards, in the hopes that we could have a small, intimate ‘celebration of life’ for you, was I told that it was a terrible thing for me to do?  That you would have hated it?  Really?  You would have hated your family expressing that they missed you, loved you, remembered fondly the good times they had once shared with you?  Why would you have hated that so much that it overrode any understanding that your family would suffer without it, that we would need to pull together, that your grandkids might find solace in their family’s love, that “closure” is important to those you leave behind?  Why was this such a “terrible” thing for me to do?

I know that I was not a very communicative son.  I know that 29 years of my own adulthood passed with few phone calls, few visits.  But you know, and I know, that you took the lead.  That by the time I was an adult, the pattern had been well established, and not only with me.  And you also know that I did reach out, a few times, in earnest.  I reached out during my early years of depression, asking for help.  I reached out during my first divorce.  I reached out in the early years of your cancer, when it was possible to talk to you alone.  Why didn’t you reach back? Not that you never offered to help lay a floor or renovate a house. You did, to your credit. Those projects are most of the memories I have of you in the last few decades.

Why did we only ever debate?  Why was it always Race and Politics?  Why did we not TALK?  Like, for real, about real things?  Even during our last conversation, those few hours that we both knew were likely our last together, why was the conversation just Race, Politics, and the same old mantra about a divorce that had happened almost 40 years ago? 

I tried to explain to my kids that your death was a big deal to me, a powerful, profound, difficult thing to go through.  But I know they didn’t really understand.  They couldn’t.  You and I never modeled any sort of parent-child relationship for them.  You were, I’m terribly sorry to say, mostly just a name to them, along with pictures of my early childhood, and stories — the good ones — that I would tell them.  But you, the man I call “Dad”, the person they call “your dad” instead of “Grandpa”, you were unknown to them, and now, always will be.

Why did you keep so many secrets? Why did you tell things to your kids that were so different from what you told your own partner and other children? Why did you share things with us that you weren’t willing to share with the people you were actually closest to? Some of these secrets have been….quite a burden for us to carry, you know. It would have been a whole lot easier if you had been transparent, had been the same man with both sides of your family. Why was that so….impossible?

I know, from my sister, that you wanted a closer relationship with us all.  That as your cancer progressed and you reflected on your life, you admitted that you wished things had gone differently.  She told me this once, and I was deeply touched.  But….why did you never tell me?  Or anyone else? Or act on it?

….

These are most of the questions I want to ask.  I did ask you many of them at different points, and I feel….incredibly sad, that you never had any answers.  I know that a few people at least will be hurt and angry that I am sharing these questions with others. But, I am not carrying them for you anymore, and my kids will never have to.

Instead, I am going to answer these questions for you.  Because the answer to them all, is exactly the same. And the more that people understand this answer, the more they can, I hope, make changes while they still have time. That’s a damn fine legacy, in my opinion.

The answer is — Dad, you were in pain.  You were always in pain, the deep, buried, ‘unconscious’ pain that comes from unacknowledged, and unhealed, trauma.  

I don’t know if it was the early years you experienced in the aftermath of World War 2.  Or the emotional consequences passed down to you because of poverty, because of Grandma’s torture and years of living in unspeakably horrible circumstances during the war, because of Grandpa’s incarceration in Nazi prison camps and his emotional vacancy for so long.  I don’t know if it was leaving your home country as a boy and moving to a land where you were looked down upon, picked on, ridiculed as a “DP”.  I don’t know if it was the estrangement from your brothers, who took such different paths than you.  I don’t know if it was the doors that were closed to you because of poverty.  I don’t know if it was the violence of your many police experiences.  I don’t know if it was the terrible, senseless murder of your partner on the force, and the years of investigation that followed.  I don’t know if it was the legacy of what is now called “toxic masculinity” in our culture, which programmed you to always, always be Superman.  I don’t know if it was the collapse of your first marriage and abrupt near-complete loss from your life of two of your children. 

I don’t know, exactly, how all this, and probably more, swirled around in your psyche.  But the collective result of it all was that you, the man who put people behind bars for a living, put himself in his own prison, behind your own walls. 

You beautiful man.  You brilliant, brave, wonderful man.  You were a victim too, but you could never let anyone see it, not even yourself. You cared so much, I know, and you showed it, when and how you were able.  I treasure my memories with you.  I still parrot many of your sayings in my everyday speech, and strive to embody the values that you taught me.  You’re still my Hero, you know.  But I wish, so much, that somebody had been able to SEE, and show you, and help you address, your pain.  I wish you had found the peace of being able to forgive, realized the life-altering value of opening to your own vulnerability, instead of armouring yourself with “strength.”   I wish you had cried, said “I’m sorry”, said you wanted things to be different, when there was still time to make a difference.  You taught me to ‘be a man.’ But a ‘man’ isn’t an impervious cocoon that only opens to the grave. A ‘man’ is someone strong enough to be open in life, to be loved, to express sorrow, to forgive, to admit weakness, to say “I’m sorry,” and to set things right.

For me, this is your memorial service.  It’s the only one I, your son, will ever get to experience for you. I know you wanted your privacy to be respected, and for that, I’m sorry.  But I have come to believe that this was merely your final act of turning away.  And so, goddammit, I’m not going to let that happen. I think it honours you far more to acknowledge your fullness, your flaws and your strengths. We can learn a lot from death and pass down valuable lessons to the still-living. But not if we turn away from the truth and carry other people’s secrets to our own graves.

You introduced me to Pink Floyd, remember?  They have a great song, one I think I may have people listen to at my own funeral someday.  It goes like this:

On the turning away

From the pale and downtrodden

And the words they say

Which we won’t understand

Don’t accept that what’s happening

Is just a case of others’ suffering

Or you’ll find that you’re joining in

The turning away

It’s a sin that somehow

Light is changing to shadow

And casting it’s shroud

Over all we have known

Unaware how the ranks have grown

Driven on by a heart of stone

We could find that we’re all alone

In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night

As the daytime is stirring

Where the speechless unite

In a silent accord

Using words you will find are strange

And mesmerized as they light the flame

Feel the new wind of change

On the wings of the night

No more turning away

From the weak and the weary

No more turning away

From the coldness inside

Just a world that we all must share

It’s not enough just to stand and stare

Is it only a dream that there’ll be

No more turning away?

…..

The strongest man I ever knew, is the strongest man I never knew. But I won’t be limited by the “dream of the proud” anymore.

So, I’m going to put headphones on now and rock out to Dark Side of the Moon, just like we used to when I was 5.  I’m going to remember how your whiskers felt against my cheek when you’d hug me.  I’m going to be grateful that the last words, the very last words, you said to me were “I love you too.”

And I’m going to stand up again, for myself, and for my children.  And for whoever else might benefit from having their heart cracked open a little.  I’m going to tell the truth.  Like you taught me, “Do what’s right, and to hell with the consequences.  If other people don’t like it, who gives a shit?  You’re the only one who has to live with you.”

I miss you.

Love, 

Dan

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