A post about my father

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.





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.


6 thoughts on “A post about my father

  1. You are yourself your father’s great and lasting legacy. I read your Tigana and Under Heaven over and over again. They speak to the great and good heart and are the literary description of your thoughts of your father.

  2. Pingback: Guy Gavriel Kay: Beyond This Dark House | librolandia

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