My father died last week. He was 92 years old, so in a sense it was not a surprise. And yet, it was. While he was frail in some respects, he had no serious health conditions. Until he did. And then, he died, relatively quickly and painlessly, with three of his six children and his wife, Shirley, keeping him company.
My grandmother had high hopes for her youngest child from the time he was born: she named my father after the novelist George Eliot ( although she added a second “l” to the name) because she had seen this name on a book cover in the house where she worked as a maid, never knowing that George Eliot was a woman.
As was common for fathers of his generation, my dad was not a big presence in my life when I was little. He went to work every day and left the details of child-rearing and running the household largely to my mother.
However, when I was an adolescent, my father and I became close. While his academic work was in mathematics, his true love was philosophy, a love he enthusiastically shared with me. We would read articles and books and then have what to a 13-year-old seemed like very deep discussions about the meaning of life, whether there was a greater power, whether there was life after death, and the like.
Both my parents were ardent believers in education, but I think my dad had the more profound impact on my desire to learn. He was a life-long learner, reading meaty works on theology, philosophy and the world around him until the end of his life.
When I was in my early teens, I developed an interest in public speaking. For years, my father coached and critiqued my speeches as I wrote them and then accompanied me to every one of the many competitions I entered. He commiserated with me when the judges did not see me as the winner and celebrated with me when they did.
My ability to speak comfortably and, I like to think, intelligently, as well as to respond on my feet has shaped and made possible my life’s work, and my dad was a big part of this.
When he was the dean of graduate studies, as convocation approached, he would shut himself in my parents’ bedroom, where we could all hear him reading out the names of international students over and over again, and then once more, until he had the pronunciations perfect. This was long before the days of institutional awareness about racism and marginalization but, as he said to me when I asked him why he did this, “Pamela, anyone who has done the work to get a graduate degree deserves to have their name said properly.”
My father loved to play games. In fact, when I was a kid, he created a board game. We saw many iterations of it, each more sophisticated than the one before. Eventually, he was happy with it and sent the prototype to Parker Brothers, only to receive a rejection letter some weeks later. I am really sorry to say that I don’t remember anything about the game.
Card playing was his true passion. I spent many a happy night at home and in campsites across Canada, playing Hearts and Auction 45 with him and my siblings, and all of us enjoy playing cards to this day.
As he got older, he added serious poker playing to his repertoire. He and Shirley spent many winters in warm parts of the United States where he played poker at the casinos every day. When closer to home, he and one or both of my brothers often headed off to the casino for a day of poker playing. Never extravagant in his approach, he managed consistently to come away from the table with more money than he had had when he sat down.
Where was the joy?
While I am sure my father knew happiness in his life, he was not what I would have called a joyful person. He was a worrier, a fearful man in many ways, who tended to assume the worst of those around him and was distrustful of the intentions of others. (I was surprised to read, in a condolence email from an old friend of his, that he remembered my father for the twinkle in his eye; this is not a characteristic I would have attributed to him.)
Perhaps consistent with his somewhat pessimistic attitude, my father had anticipated and planned for his death for decades. I remember a letter he sent me when I was in my early 20s and he in his late 40s (and perfectly healthy), in which he talked about his “impending finitude.”
My dad was obsessed with not being late. Our family has, collectively, lost years of our lives getting to airports hours and hours before departure time, showing up at school events and movie theatres long before start time and cooling our heels in restaurant lobbies waiting until our reservation time.
He could be demanding and critical, even in his pursuit of recreational activities and, as a result, I have never played bridge, have not been on a sailboat since a few unfortunate outings with him when I was a teenager, and do not square dance.
In 2005, my daughter and I made a road trip to visit my dad and Shirley when they were spending the winter just outside New Orleans. He had booked us on a bus tour of the city and, so anxious was he that we not be late, that he had pre-driven the route a few times so he knew exactly how long it would take to get there. The evening before the big trip, he insisted that Shirley pre-pour our orange juice, covering the glasses with plastic wrap before putting them in the fridge, to save time in the morning. Needless to say, we arrived at the tour site with time to spare – two hours if I recall correctly.
Happily for me, while I inherited and learned many wonderful things from my father, this did not include his predisposition to gloominess, and I often wished for him that he could be more positive and hopeful in his engagement with life and the world around him.
My story would not be complete without telling you about Kitty. About 12 years ago, dad and Shirley got a kitten, who they named Mandy. She became a very important part of their lives and entranced everyone who met her. Eventually, she became too much for them to manage – in particular, she had a habit of wrapping herself around their legs every time they took a step, which is not good for people who are becoming a bit unsteady on their feet – and dad asked if any of us would be willing to take her.
With some hesitation, my partner and I decided we were ready to have a cat in our lives again. We renamed her Kitty, which did not seem to disturb her in the least and better suited her charming personality, and she quickly purred her way into our hearts and those of everyone she met at our house. She ran away the night Donald Trump was elected, showing her political stripes, but we convinced her this would not happen again and she came home. (Uh oh!) Every day, we are grateful that she has become part of our lives.
Like many, perhaps most, people, I struggled to find the relationship I wanted with my father. We were estranged for a few years at different times in my adult life over quarrels that were important at the time, but reconciled long ago and grew closer as we both got older. To my regret, my relationship with my dad was not relaxed, but it was one in which I felt valued and loved, and I think he felt the same way.
Memory is both imperfect and highly personal. Each of my siblings likely remembers things differently than I have and each of them has their own feelings about our father. This story is mine and mine alone; I hope it resonates with those who knew my dad and helps those who didn’t to see a little bit of who he was. If you want to know the facts of my father’s life, you can check out his obituary, which he wrote himself some time ago.
Finally, I have to say something about the pandemic. These are not easy times to be old or to have old parents. Dying, death and grief are made more complicated as we manage these events without the physical comfort of having people we care about close to us. Finding ways to spend time with my dad over the past five months has been challenging.
I spoke by telephone and emailed with my father over the course of the summer, but the last time I saw him in person was on my birthday in early July. We were masked, of course, but my father removed the mask from his face every time he spoke, which just cracked me up.
Over the course of that visit, my dad told stories I had never heard before about the day I was born, in Halifax, and the long drive he, my mother and I took just six weeks later – my mother did not drive at all, my father had obtained his licence only shortly before the trip and, in his telling of the story, had been behind the wheel of a car just twice – in a drive-away vehicle all the way to Victoria. For a fearful man, that must have been quite an adventure.
It was a perfect last visit.