The end of an era – and a difficult relationship with my father

And this is a post I have wanted to share for quite some time…. Back in the summer when I was reflecting on the digital life I create here, I was leery of sharing my own experience of my father’s struggle with cancer.  Partly because my family is a rather closed group who does not share their struggles openly.  Adding to that my estrangement from my father, I felt it wasn’t right to write the reflections on his struggle that I would not share with him in person.  So I refrained from using this space to explore those feelings.

But now I have just been called back to Canada from my time in Peru because my dad returned to the hospital and passed away.  I was able to make it home in time and was able to play some music for him in the hospital.  It’s what I really wanted to do.  With his passing I feel finally free to explore some of the difficult feelings I have about him.  My relationship has been conflicted and for that reason, largely absent for the last 15 years, but at his funeral I was able to give a eulogy I am happy to share here.

As @cogdog – one of the great sharers – told me, it’s just “slowly letting people around you know what you’re going through”.  And in my time searching for other difficult eulogies to write, I thought, perhaps my sharing will help another girl in another library somewhere in that great wide world recognize that she can also remember the good things while giving space to acknowledge the bad.  This is one of the most important things for me to remember.  It’s ok to feel angry and frustrated by the actions of others.  This is what teaches us how to draw healthy boundaries that protect us.  Some of those walls are between ourselves and those closest to us.  Many times those are the most important ones to draw!

So on February 27th, I stood and sang one of my favourite songs – one that has been deeply connected to my year – In My Time of Dying, by the Be Good Tanyas, and I read this eulogy for myself and the people who really understood.

I am standing here as Brian’s daughter to pay tribute to the life that passed.  This is a difficult eulogy for me – not because it is for my dad, but because I have really only known him when I was a child, as I have been largely absent from his life for the last 15 years.  There are many of you here who have entered his life more recently, and I hope that my memories of him ring true to the Brian you knew as well.

Of course, every parent hopes to pass some wisdom to their children, and dad, I’m sure, was no different.  As I sat and considered what to say today, I focused on the lessons I have learned from him.  I am a student after all – a lifer, I’m afraid.  So what did dad teach me in his time here?

The first lesson is one of the earlier ones I remember.  Respect for the natural environment and for our animal brothers and sisters.  I recall one of the regular trips out to Laurier Lake.  Derrick and I and some of the other kids had gone down to the pier to do some fishing in the afternoon.  I’m sure I was only 6 or 7 years old at the time, but I knew how to cast and how to jiggle the line to keep the fish convinced that they were chasing after a tasty treat.  Well, I caught one, and reeled in a mid-sized fish!  While I was old enough to fish on my own, I was not yet old enough to remove the fish from the hook – a dangerous and difficult job.  One of the other kids ran up to get dad to come and take the fish off the hook for us.  In the meantime, we discovered that when you had the full weight of a fish on your line, you could cast the line much farther than with the tiny weights!  When dad came down, we were casting and recasting the caught fish into the lake, teasing it with a continued struggle for its life.  He was furious.  It wasn’t right to treat the fish this way – we had to respect the fish and treat it properly because it was a living thing.  Even though I was young, and my memory is terrible, I remember that day.  Later on, in reflecting on the parts of his life I did share, I saw that love of nature and respect for the natural world in the ways he farmed and took care of the animals on the farm.  Don’t get me wrong – we were always the top of the food chain – but there was no place for the unnecessary suffering of animals on the farm.  Even if that meant one animal would have to die to curb the suffering of the rest of the herd.

Dad had lessons to teach me about people as well.  Dad had space for people from all walks of life, and while he would tell jokes like the rest of them, everyone was welcome at his table.  I remember regularly visiting and staying at various Hutterite colonies around the Western provinces, and heard his stories as being accepted as a white member of the first nations groups.  In particular, I remember visiting him in Valleyview and meeting Little John and Donald, two first nations brothers who lived in a schoolbus in the bush.  Whether we were picking them up hitchhiking on the highway, going out to check their traps with them, or having a special meal at the house, these guys were invited into life as anyone else was.  Dad simply wasn’t the judging type.  It took all kinds of people to make the world go around, and he shared his life and ours with everyone.  I think this is one of the reasons I find it so easy to walk into about any culture on the planet and fit myself into the normal rhythms of life – even though I often stick out like a q-tip in a box of pencils.

Maybe it was because he came into contact with so many types of people that dad found himself a jack of all trades.  He experimented with his career, trying on different hats and taking in the breadth of what there was to offer.  From his early days of selling vacuum cleaners, to driving gravel truck, to farming in Daysland, to running the infamous Bald Eagle Inn, to farming just about any animal he could find up in Valleyview, to driving taxi to working construction, to owning a store and running a rototiller business, to his later days of equipment operating and buying and selling property, Dad certainly tested his hand at a wide variety of work.  I’m sure he took pride in his ability to do the work he needed in order to make life happen.  I’m certainly happy that I approach even menial tasks as an opportunity to shine – a trait I see in my brother and sister as well.

The last lesson dad taught me, was one of the most difficult, but one of the most important I think I will learn: we cannot outrun our demons.  Now… When I started my masters program, I had an experience with my first professor that almost spelled the end of my program.  We locked horns and my stubbornness nearly led me to quit.  I recognized that I would need to exercise a bit of humility if I were going to reap the benefits of having a learning relationship with my professor.  A trip to India introduced me to a custom whereby young people are affixed with bangles that are meant to distract the demons that are known to visit us – especially in our teenage years when we are least rational.  I adopted the custom, attaching 12 bangles to my wrist – bracelets that do not come off (to the dismay of the security people in the airport), They only come off when they fall off or are broken. They remind me that I am a student, and in order to become a great teacher, I must first learn the humility of a student so I will later understand the power my students will give me. When I lose a bangle, I know I am one step closer to beating the demons of my own pride.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I have not been a part of dad’s life for a number of years.  I have made my own life and have often wondered how I would react at this moment.  In writing this, many places have opened within me, revealing long hidden spaces where both anger and joy lived.  And in that mess of emotions, I have found a lot of pride.  In moving past that pride, I have found a way back to the dad who taught me to take joy in the natural world.  I remember trips down the river and hunting excursions, camping trips and all the wonderful animals on the farm.  He taught me to take an interest in all kinds of people, the community in Valleyview that recognized us as the farm family of the year, the touring musicians at the Bald Eagle Inn, the people from all sorts of backgrounds who remember dad as a warm and generous person.  And I am able to celebrate the ability to embrace whatever kind of work life throws your way.  I am warned in his passing at the vice of pride – a deadly sin that keeps us from knowing the world – that keeps us afraid of knowing the world in an authentic way.  While I do not propose that I am beyond this life-long and difficult lesson, I will lay down one of my demons today and move forward with these valuable lessons from the teacher who was my dad.

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5 Responses to “The end of an era – and a difficult relationship with my father”

  1. Just knowing you sang a song means it was heartfelt. Peace to you, Leslie, in the time of dying and living. You’ve learned and you’ve taught in all this.

    your friend near and far, Alan

  2. Thanks, @cogdog. And thanks for sharing your own journey. I have learned so much on the value of being ok with where you’re at. People really do want to care for each other – we just so rarely give each other the chance.

  3. thank you so much for this. it really helped me in writing the eulogy for my dad.

  4. […] the content of the course.  This is a moment I have waited for.  It’s taken years and a humility as a student that I had to actively […]

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