This morning I went to the cemetery where my dad is buried. I always go on the weekend of his birthday, and I had some nice news this week (which I’ll share when I can) and I often visit his grave at such times, too.
We planted a sapling there when he was buried, and it is a genuinely majestic tree now, tall and leafy in this springtime. Probably the only measure of time’s passing there that doesn’t conjure sorrow.
My father was a surgeon, but as far from the cliché of the surgeon as arrogant ‘lord of the ward’ as possible. He was brilliant and gentle, both, and I have often thought about how rarely those are conjoined. Essentially he was an urban, internationally-trained surgeon with the compassion and bedside manner of an old-fashioned country doctor. His patients adored him. Even as a child I could see that, and even as a child understand why.
He’d stayed on in Europe after the war, did his surgical residency at a teaching hospital outside Edinburgh. When he finished, and indicated he felt it was time to come back to Canada, they tried very hard to keep him there. After he died I found a letter among his files from the head of the hospital, describing him as the most gifted surgical resident he’d ever seen. Typically, my dad had never shown that letter to my mother, or any of his sons.
I’m aware that many artists find their access to art in hardship and suffering, whether within the family, or in the larger contexts of their lives (I am thinking of George Seferis, the Greek Nobel laureate and a personal icon, and how he was shaped and marked by the tragedy of Greece in WW2 and the savage civil war that followed). Other artists draw strength from their background, discover a willingness and ability to take risks from that sense of being anchored in love. There are no rules (that’s my own only rule about this) but I know I am of that latter group.
I had a conversation very recently with a man who talked of how he’d worried if he could be a good father, because his own hadn’t been, and his role-modelling was difficult. He spoke of how happy and relieved he was to discover that he had the ability, and the desire, to be a loving father to his son. (There are no rules there, either, only norms and likelihoods.) I know that I am a better person and father because of the example my dad set.
I have written (most directly in the two Sarantium books) about our desire to leave a name, a legacy, a marker of having been here. For most of us it lies in our families, the way what we were may be passed on to those we marry, parent, befriend. My dad’s legacy is partly in the lives he saved, partly in those who (still) remember him with affection and admiration, and partly in his wife and sons, and what may ripple down through us to grandchildren and perhaps through them one day. That last is the way it is for most of us, I think.
The first poem in Beyond This Dark House, my selected poetry, is the only one I’ve ever been able to write directly for him, or about him, since he was killed. I’m going to post it here this week as another memorial, with thanks to Penguin Books Canada who published the book.
NIGHT DRIVE: ELEGY
Driving through Winnipeg this autumn
twilight, a sensation has lodged
somewhere behind my breastbone
(impossible to be more precise).
It is at once a lightness and a weight,
press of memory and a feeling
as if tonight has insufficient
gravity to keep me from
drifting back, so many
long years after leaving here.
Quiet streets, the slowly darkening
sky (it can take a while). I turn
on Waterloo and stop outside the house
where we first lived. No curtains drawn
on the living room windows. I can see
into the past, almost. The willow in front
is so tall now. My parents planted it.
We played football on this lawn
(and the next one down, and next,
as we grew older, needed room to run).
Used the willow sapling when cutting
pass patterns, slicing in front of it
to shake a defender. I hear
my mother from the porch, ‘Don’t
break the tree!’ A car approaches,
slows, someone looks at me
in the gathering night, moves on.
So do I, gliding a little further
to Mathers Bay, where we’d race
our bikes, the finish line
right at the intersection,
so we’d be flying flat-out
and sometimes have to brake
in a squeal and sideways skid
(black tire marks on the road)
if a car was coming east.
I wouldn’t let my sons do that today.
The houses along the bay,
down to the curve and back
up the other side, were homes of friends,
or girls I longed for, and their
parents – men and women mostly
dead now. Each address marks
a grave. Ghosts water the night
lawns, rake leaves under stars,
look up as I coast by
and then turn away, as if politely,
not to seem to stare as this rented car
stops again, this time outside
our second home, the one
my parents built when I was nine.
I am heavy and light tonight,
entangled and drifting, both
at once. The city
is so full of my father.
I used to ride with him to Saturday
morning rounds at the hospital.
Proud, anxious not to show it (Why
was that? Did he know?) as we’d step
off the elevator and onto a post-op ward.
I’d read a book by the nursing station
then cross the street to the
Salibury House (long gone now)
and order two sandwiches, a milkshake
and a coffee, but only at the exact
minute he’d told me to. And he’d
arrive from his last patient just
as the waitress set the food in front of me.
I’m guessing he’d watch from the window
or door, to time it so exactly, for his son.
East on Mathers now, imagining kids
on bikes careening into my path forty
years ago. Waverley, and south. I’d
hitchhike this route to campus, winter
mornings, dreaming of away, anywhere
away. My parents had their first
date at a nightclub out here on
Pembina Highway. My father just back
from overseas. She thought he was
phony-British, using words like ‘chap’
and ‘bloody,’ all night long. Still, (she’d
later tell her sons), that night she
went home to Enniskillen Avenue and woke
her mother. Sat on the edge of the bed and said
she thought she’d met a man she could love.
We never tired of that story.
Our pretty mother,barely into her twenties,
her immediate certainty, the dashing
image of our father, home from away,
away, winning a woman for himself.
The city’s quiet on a Thursday night.
The forecast was rain but the sky’s been clear,
the air cooling down; football
games and burning leaves. Back north now,
on what seems to have become
a night drive entirely unplanned. I steer
with one hand at twelve o’clock and
an elbow out the open window.
The downtown ‘Y’ has been demolished.
My Uncle Jack would take me there
on Sunday mornings for a steam and
a swim. Such a sweet man. White hair
my father always joked of envying, ruefully
shaking his head in admiration. Dad’s
was a duller, white-grey, nondescript. Except,
it seems, the morning of the day he was
killed in Florida, my mother said to
him over breakfast, ‘Sam, look at your
hair! It’s white as Jack’s!’ Salt water,
winter sun, had bleached it bright.
I imagine my father surprised
and pleased, and thinking of his brother
when he took that last walk
with the dog along the coastal highway
in too much twilight.
There seems to be no crossing of streets
tonight where I can avoid
hitting my father or myself. Wellington
Crescent now, west towards the park
where I first kissed some girls, broke up
with others, dreamed of going away. My father
took a troopship to England in the
last year of the war, stayed over there
in Scotland for five years, came back,
came back, married, had three sons.
He taught each of us to catch a football, lost
deliberately (to each of us) in table tennis,
grimacing elaborately at a drive mis-hit
into the net, not fooling anyone. He’d look
shocked, shocked when we accused him
of letting us win, as if the idea
couldn’t have even crossed his mind.
He quizzed me before high school tests,
tsking with dismay at wrong answers
that were clear evidence of insufficient
application. He worked so hard.
I think we knew that, even very young,
but still assumed he’d have infinite time
and room for us. I wince, tonight, remembering
the absolute sureness of that. How did he
elicit so much certainty? I wonder
if he ever looked for and found
clear signs of his own nature in
three very different sons,
or if that kind of thinking
required too much vanity.
I liked coming home from a downtown
appointment with him. Walking to
the Mall Medical Building, waiting
in the doctors’ lounge, listening to the
talk of football and politics, grabbing
myself a Coke from the little fridge, and then
the feel of the room altering as he came in,
loosening his tie, hanging up the white coat,
raising an eyebrow at my soft drink
before dinner. The drive back home,
just the two of us, end of a work day. He’d steer
with one hand at twelve o’clock and
an elbow out the open window. No one
ever born had hands I’d ever rather feel
enclosing mine. Then. Now. The day
the son we named for him was born.
If it was summer, turning west on Grant,
the sunlight would be on us. We’d put
the visors down. (I was too short for that
to help, but copied him.) Or it might have been
darker, cooler, under a prairie sky
in a twilight like the one that started
and compels these images,
if it was autumn then, as it is now,
above this ground of memories.
Heaviness, and that so-strange
sense of weightlessness. I thought,
before, I couldn’t locate these feelings
precisely within myself. Not so,
in the end. They reside, together,
anywhere my father was in this city
and in me, which is pretty much
everywhere, and he’s been
dead too many years now already,
with more years and more years
and more long years of being gone
still to come.