Growing up, my mother would often ask, “Who is your favourite teacher?”; of course, I assumed she was referring to my school teaches. While I had a number of favourite school teachers over the years, if I were now asked the question, “Who was your favourite teacher?”, my response would be, “I had two. My mom and my dad.” I have been thinking a lot about my folks of late. My mother’s birthday is coming up. She died 13 years ago and my father died eight years before her. I guess it makes sense for me to take a moment to salute their memory.
As a toddler I always gave my parents a hug and a kiss before going to bed. I was four years old when, one evening, I approached my father with arms outstretched, and he put up his hand and said, “Boy, you are becoming a man. Men don’t hug and kiss.”. I know exactly when I was standing at that point. I can see the linoleum floor. As I recall, I was wearing my red and white Roy Rogers pyjamas. I think I felt a bit sad; however, Dad did say that I was becoming a man. I guess that was a good thing. This man who could fix anything had spoken, so he must be right; he was my dad after all.
Looking back, I don’t blame him – that was his generation. I remember the day I landed a splinter in my hand. While I was running home and crying I prayed that it was my mother I first saw. Mom was a nurse and had a gentle, calm way about her. As it turned out it was my father who met me on the back stoop. “Put out your hand boy.” Now I was really crying as he pulled his pocket knife out; he was NOT a nurse. He was a sea captain and had anything but a calm and gentle touch. I so wished my mother heard my wails and came to the rescue. “Stop crying”, he commanded. “Men don’t cry. Gordie Howe doesn’t cry when he gets a splinter.”
I suppose it was due to experiences like these, I have always had difficulty expressing my emotions. Again, I don’t blame my father. I’m sure that’s how he grew up. That’s probably all he knew.
Now let’s flash forward to the 1980’s. I was in the Naval Reserve and onboard a 65 foot training vessel. We were sailing out of Saint John and on our way to Digby, Nova Scotia. I was in the wheelhouse chatting with the captain. We were talking about fathers; well, he was talking about his father and I was listening. I vividly remember him saying that when his father died quite suddenly he lamented the fact that he never got to say the things he wanted to say. At that moment I swore to myself, that that was not going to happen to me. But I couldn’t muster up the courage to tell my father how I felt. In August of 1983, Jane and I were getting ready to move to Newfoundland. We were newlyweds and we were about to head off to my first teaching job. A few days before our departure I drove over to my parents for the sole purpose of telling my father that I loved him. It never happened. The best I could do was say, “Dad, I appreciate all you have done for me” and then quickly changed the conversation.
Over the next few years I struggled with this issue. At one point Jane said, “Then why don’t you write him a letter?”. “A letter?”, I answered. “Well that’s tacky.” She replied, “Better that than not saying anything at all.” I had to agree.
OK, so let’s move ahead a few more years. We were back in New Brunswick and, consequently, I was able to reengage with the Naval Reserve (2 nights a week and 1 weekend a month). Each summer I would deploy with the navy for 2 or 3 weeks. This particular summer I was assigned to participate in a NATO, land-based exercise in Halifax. During this exercise we stood watches which meant I had every other afternoon off. It was during that time I wrote my letter. It was actually addressed to both of my parents but it was more so for my father (it had been easier for me to express my feelings to my mother). I wrote it over the course of 2 afternoons. I read it and re-read it several times. It was stamped and addressed. When I stopped by the mailbox I stood there for what seemed like several minutes, debating as to whether or not I should post it. I then thought about my own son and imagined him standing by a mailbox with a similar letter for me. Would I want him to drop it in the box? The answer was easy. I popped it in. It said everything I wanted it to say.
Six years later, we knew Dad was dying; I guess, he knew it too. A week before he died, and after a thirty year intermission, I kissed him on the forehead and told him I loved him. He said to me, “Your brother told me the same thing this afternoon.” To this day I don’t know to which brother he was referring. I’ve never had the courage to ask them. I suspect we had all been struggling with the same issue.
A week after he died, Mom asked us, her sons, to go through his things. When I opened his bedside table I saw my letter. I wonder, over the years, how many times he read it before going to sleep.