Since my father passed away I find myself thinking of him daily. Sure I have his obituary hanging on my fridge; a stark reminder that he’s no longer a phone call or short drive away. He is the furthest away anyone can possibly be from anther person. But I don’t need that photo of him and that brief snippet, which painfully encapsulates his life in one short paragraph of near meaninglessness, to remind me that he is dead and gone.
My face reminds me when I look in the mirror. I’m not a spitting image, but there is a strong resemblance. My voice reminds me when I speak. I hear myself say things that he said and sometimes in a tone he used. In my mind I often hear his voice describe what he would think about the news I read, the shows I watch, the way I treat my kids, the way I interact with my wife.
This is constant. The passing of a parent from a disease like cancer is quite different than if that parent were struck suddenly by a car. An accident can be dismissed as poor luck. As the gamble of life. As nothing more than a terrible happenstance of fate. But, when a parent dies of some foul disease like cancer it forces the child to face certain facts. When a life insurance company’s rates are partly determined by how your parents died it means when you look upon the death bed of a cancerous father you may very well be looking into the future. Your own future. Death from a genetic disease seems worse for as a father’s genes turn upon him, so too a son’s may betray him in due course.
I convince myself his work environment, with all the welding fumes and cigarette smoke in the factory, had more to do with his cancer than his genes. But, that nagging thought of what my future might be, ever present in the back of my mind, makes itself known every time I think of him.
With my father’s end known and mine unknown I find I compare my life with his. I recognize the privileges afforded me due to my father’s sacrifices. Privileges I did nothing to earn yet reap nevertheless. Sometimes I place my unearned privileges as high as 75% and earned ones at 25%. These fluctuate depending on my mood or my pride. Though just being alive is the greatest privilege that my parents bestowed upon me. I started out of the gate well cared for. I might not have gotten the toys I most wanted, but as I look back on my childhood I really lacked for nothing. I had a roof, food, a brother, friends. A rich childhood by any standard.
His childhood was far different than mine. When he was five, living in Poland, the Nazi army invaded and with it a great unrest in his life began. In 1944 the Soviet army returned the favour; revenge, the chief response to Nazi atrocities. At 11 I played soccer and enjoyed the summer. When he was 11 Soviet soldiers lined him, his sisters, and his mother against a stone wall to be shot. If not for the orders of some forever unknown officer they would have been killed that day. Instead, my father was carted off to a concentration camp. His offence was being German. Four years he lived there in squalid conditions.
By the time he was let out and transferred to what was then East Germany, he was 15 years old. At 15 I was a pimply kid who read Conan comic books.
I am the eldest and I was born when my father was 40. My eldest was born when I was 31. In some respects I am ahead of his life trajectory. In others I will never catch up to him; not that I would want to. If we can avoid another world war that would be great.
I think of the life he had and how my life, because of his perseverance, is markedly better. That’s the point of being a parent; provide for your children so they have a better life than you. Hand them a bright future, like a baton, that they can carry and pass onto their children.
My father worked for a now long gone auto manufacturing company. He worked there for 47 and three quarter years; rare accomplishment by today’s standards. As a tool and dye tradesman he constantly worked with his hands. Perhaps that is why they were least affected by the cancer. Where the rest of his body withered from the assault within, his hands remained strong. I held them. I stared at them because to look at what cancer was doing to the rest of him was too difficult.
His hands were much stronger than mine and bigger as well. Solid muscles built from years of manual labour. My hands by comparison are uncalloused due to office work and no where near as muscular. I held his limp hands in mine as he lay on the bed in the hospital. I remember wishing we were anywhere but there. In that quiet time, in the hospital at that early morning hour, I talked to him. He didn’t reply, but the occasional squeeze of his hand reassured me that he heard what I said. I thanked him for everything he did and I promised I would look after his wife, my mother.
My father had his issues as well. He didn’t trust very easily; certain that any contractor would rip him off or shortchange him. Household repairs were always done in the quickest way possible, which sometimes meant not properly. When he died my mother spent a lot of money updating the house. And he sometimes was not as patient as he could be. His wartime experiences explain, though not excuse, those traits.
Yet even in these things I learned from him, too. I do trust more and find I am more patient with my daughters, though they may disagree at times. I am more open with my feelings than he was, though he always told my brother and I that he loved us; always. That too, is likely a lesson from the war; death can come at any time. Most of his other emotions though he kept to himself at least where his sons were concerned.
My father was also frugal. He did not want to waste anything and did not want to spend money where he could avoid it. I remember a time one summer when we went to a Baskin Robins. The price of four ice cream cones sent him into a financial fit. He explained how he could have gotten four litres of ice cream at the grocery store for the same price. After that every once in a while we’d ask him if he wanted to go to Baskin Robins. He’d just shake his head muttering that he should have opened an ice cream store.
When I would talk about electric cars and how they were better for the environment and you don’t have to buy gas he’d take no longer than a few seconds to retort that the price difference between an electric car and a gas one would pay for an awful lot of gas for many years. I was not happy that my argument could be so easily defeated. That is another lesson I take with me. Comparing price is one thing, but comparing quality, longevity and other related costs can change one’s perspective on what value is. I find myself talking value to my kids constantly. Price versus value is something I now get thrown back at me by my kids. I’m happy with that. Critical thinking, in all it’s guises, is something I want my kids to have after I’m gone.
A few months after my father’s funeral my mother was cleaning his things out of the house. It was, understandably, a slow and emotional process for her. We came over for supper one day and she handed me a pair of his dress shoes. The style was straight out of the fifties, because that’s when he bought them. They were in great condition. The things my dad valued he would painstakingly care for and look after. The things he didn’t value he would play down as unimportant.
I remember when my parents came to the airport to see me off to Japan where I would live for two years. There was, naturally, a delay that meant I’d have to stay at a hotel. My father, annoyed that he’d have to spend as much as $8 more for parking announced so all could hear that “If this is what Japan is like I’m not going.” Mortified I tried to explain that the airport delay was not Japan’s fault. He clearly did not see value in visiting Japan and was laying the groundwork for why he eventually never did visit. Not valuing what others value is something I regretfully learned, too. I am actively trying to unlearn it. What others value may not be what I value, but I should accept that people are different and have different perspectives. My daughters like Taylor Swift and when asked if I do, I reply that I’m not her target audience. I went with my daughters to a Taylor swift concert. My father never would have. He saw no value in concerts.
Those pristine shoes were what he valued though and so I valued them, too. I gladly accepted them and brought them home. For some reason it took a few more months for me to decide to try them on. I’m not sure if there was some feeling in my heart that they were still his or that I didn’t deserve them that led to my trepidation. But, once overcome I put them on; they fit. I stood, looking down at them. While brown is not my favourite colour for a shoe they did look sharp. And then I took a few steps; it felt awkward. Something was wrong. My balance was off. I took them off and looked at the soles. The back outside part of the heels were worn away on both shoes. He had owned these shoes for decades and through constant use the shoes formed to his gait. For a moment I closed my eyes and pictured my father walking. His heels would hit the ground first on the outside with his toes pointed outward to the sides. A skiing accident where he broke an ankle affected the way he walked and ran.
My natural walk is not like this at all. In that moment his life flashed through my mind with all that he experienced. I couldn’t even walk a few yards in his shoes let alone fully understand how war, the threat of imminent death, two attempts to escape to the west, and discrimination here in Canada had affected him. I felt a wonder that I’m even alive because it is a wonder that he survived. Every day I see his picture I am reminded of what sacrifice means and I attempt to live up to that standard for my family. It’s not easy, but it is worth it.
For all your strengths and all your flaws you have taught me well. Thanks dad.