Some Thoughts On The Anniversary Of My Dads Death

8 Years ago today, my dad died.

If I was to say that I think about him every day, it would be a lie. There are days when I don’t think about him at all and there are days when I think about him a lot. I am sure there is a pattern to when I become aware that I am thinking about him but the only real predictor is that I am doing something new or particularly interesting – I am more likely to think about him when I have travelled somewhere for vacation or am at the cottage trying to fix something that he would take care of quickly and almost without thinking about it.

This makes sense given my dads curious nature and drive to figure-out how things work. He first moved out of his parents house and to a different country when he was 16 – London, England – and moved around a fair bit until we moved to Canada when he was in his mid thirties. Having children meant that he needed to put down roots in a place that would offer them the best opportunity to lead a safe, productive, and happy life. Ontario Canada was a great choice. Other than the occasionally brutal cold periods in the winter, this part of the world has a lot going for it.

Canadians are an eclectic bunch. We have a shared identity that is not well defined as most of the people who live here are either immigrants from another country, or are first or second generation of people who were. We all have an idea of what it means to be a Canadian and most of these ideas are slightly different. There is not a strong nationalist aspect to it which is a huge blessing. We’d all rally together to make sure there was a strongly worded letter sent to anyone who was trying to do our country harm, and most of us would apologize for using a tone that was more harsh than what we are known to take. This works well because we do not represent any existential threat to the United States, the only nation that we have on our border. They don’t really think much about us, which is fine for us because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves either.

So my parents made the decision to move to Canada to give my brother and me the opportunity to live the American dream. I believe that my mom would find happiness anywhere she lives, that is her nature. She has a peaceful mind, reasonable wants and needs, and is very low in negative emotion. You do the best you can and then you move forward, or you do the best you can while moving forward. Choose and do the one that works the best. Spend as much of your time paying attention to the things that are important to you, take reasonable steps to avoid harming other people, and be kind to animals. Her world view is not one that would trigger a family of four to move to another country let alone another continent, but it’s a world view that would not say “no” to the request, particularly when the reasons for the move were to help two young people achieve more of their potential. The fact that my dad was able to achieve more of his was likely just an unmentioned or unanticipated bonus.

My dad absolutely LOVED Canada. While this was almost a guarantee, based on the human need for consistency, he would have loved it if he had been born here or if his family had moved here when he was young. It is a comfortable place to be, a place that evokes a peace of mind or sense of security and safety for anyone who sets foot inside its borders. Most people are from somewhere else which gives everyone the ability to kind of blend-in as opposed to stick-out. This fact makes Canada a very interesting place to live. It eliminates the sense of there being a right way and a wrong way to live; the right way being what the average person does and the wrong way being anything else. The fact that there is no such thing as an average Canadian, at least in terms of how they choose to live their life, makes practically any life choice that does no harm to other people the “right way to live.” This means that there is no such thing as “Canadian values” there are only “human values.”

After we moved to Canada, my dad didn’t spend much time travelling. There were a few trips back to Ireland to visit, a few family vacations to the US, and a business trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. He enjoyed these, particularly, Washington DC, but he never made any specific mention to them as being quests to find something that was missing. This was nothing like the way he talked about every trip including our emigration from Ireland. Canada was home, it provided all of the opportunities that he needed personally and wanted for his family. Here, he was with his people and it really worked for him. He had been a Canadian his entire life, so he never felt at peace in Northern Ireland, England, or in the Republic of Ireland. His values were mostly aligned with the people who lived in those places, but not entirely, and he knew this on some level. But in Canada there was a complete alignment given that so many of us are from somewhere else.

My dad’s curiosity and desire to make sense of the world did not stop once he realized that he had found where he was and wanted to be from. For the 30 years between our arrival in Canada and his death, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn and figure things out that he had. I believe that he had always gotten a lot out of learning and figuring things out, but began to actually NEED to keep learning and making sense of the world when my brother was born. He is remarkably bright and seems to absorb information effortlessly and almost without having to pay attention to things. He figured out how to walk before most of the children who were his age had mastered crawling, he skipped most of the baby talk going almost directly to speaking in sentences, and he entertained some of the people in the village we lived in by reading them the news paper when he was 3. This worked for my dad because there was someone for him to talk to and teach who was interested in just knowing things, but who learned at a lightening fast pace that forced my dad to keep hitting the books to make sure he kept a few steps ahead. It is kind of funny to think about now because most people know a lot about their jobs and a few other things, but my brother was way too young to bring onto any of the job sites my dad worked at as a carpenter. Most of the lessons took place at home, at the kitchen table or on the sofa in front of the TV. The Internet didn’t exist back then, so my dad would have to go to the library or take courses to learn things to teach. This worked for him because my dad enjoyed learning and got a lot out of teaching the information to others. He took electronics courses, moving over to computer classes when PCs began to find their way into more homes.

When my brother was around 10 or 11 my dad realized that he was fighting a losing battle. There was no denying it any more, the times of him being the smartest person in the room, at least when my brother was also in it, were gone. There was a sort of a reversal of roles when my brother began to teach things to him, but this was never going to last very long. My dad had a strong sense of responsibility to make sure his children had the opportunity to take advantage of whatever gifts or talents they had, his children did not share this sense of responsibility (or much sense for that matter). My brother tried to help him keep up, but it’s a disconcerting dynamic for a child to suddenly find themselves having to contend with. All at once and for no clear reason the teacher had become the student and the student the teacher and the incentives each had while playing these roles were not at all the same. While my dad was teaching out of a sense of responsibility to help his children and a sense to society to make sure someone with a good brain matured to become a contributing member of society and a tax payer, my brother was teaching my dad because my dad was interested in learning. My brother was a student because young people don’t know very much and need to learn in order to escape this state of ignorance. My dad was a student because he was curious about the world and knew that a lot more would be learned when you have to teach someone. However, at some point towards the end of high school, they both figured out that it wasn’t going to continue for much longer. My dad would remain curious and would lean on my brother to teach him things, but it was more of an independent learning approach with my brother in the academic advisor position.

My brother has a lot of intellectual horsepower, which is both amazing and slightly frightening when you notice it in action. If you are not prepared for it, and even when you are, you can be left feeling kind of thick. I’m two years younger than him, so he was always going to be at least couple of years ahead of me in terms of development and knowledge acquisition as we grew-up. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to learn stuff that didn’t interest him that I began to gain an appreciation that we were different, that I wasn’t just a less powerful version of him. My parents always knew this and while they tried to make sure that they didn’t privilege one of us more than the other, they were NOT willing to handicap him. My relationship with my dad was more similar to the father son relationships of my friends and what you might see on TV. My dad was a carpenter, and I took a greater interest in this area of his life than the abstract things my brother found rewarding to consider and spend time on.

I’d like to think that my brother and I were the perfect complement to my dad’s curiosity and sense of parental responsibility to teach your children how to be useful and contributing members of society. Being a carpenter in Ireland is very different than being one in Canada. Their different climates necessitate different building methods and the flip flop in humidity levels plays havoc on wood in a way that the constant moisture in Ireland doesn’t. The early years in Canada put my dad behind the 8 ball in terms of becoming a Canadian carpenter who was able to deliver the high quality results that had become second nature in Ireland. The gap is a large but not insurmountable one, and he had closed it within a few years. I have little doubt that had the gap been larger, things would have turned out a little differently. The truth is that there isn’t enough of a difference between being a carpenter in Ireland and one in Canada to keep it interesting for 30 years and my dad had already grown tired of it a few times BEFORE we moved to Canada. The teaching role that my brother’s brain obligated my dad to play afforded enough of a balance to the carpentry work that he was able to keep at it for a while. The need to learn the rules of being a Canadian carpenter extended this time frame. However, after a while there stopped being enough new stuff for my dad to keep doing it, which was great because it happened to coincide with my brothers need for more information and a deeper understanding of everything. Carpentry was something that my dad loved to leave behind and then learned to love getting back into.

This became the rhythm and cadence to my dads life for the last 25 years. He would move back and forth between dealing with things and dealing with ideas. It didn’t really matter to him which role he was playing, he was capable of both and since there was a lot about the world that he didn’t know, there were opportunities to learn from both sons. I believe that I am more curious about why the world is the way it is and how the world works while my brother is more curious about things that do not yet exist or are on the bleeding edge of what is known. When my dad would find his way back to carpentry, I would spend more time with him and probably spent about a year total working with him on various jobs. When he was sick of carpentry he would begin to pursue something that was in the realm of ideas or vapour and would spend more time learning from my brother.

For example, I have a very clear series of memories in my head of walking in on a conversation between them. The bulk of the conversation had already taken place and they were closing in on the home stretch. It was obvious that my brother had explained a new concept or idea to my dad and my dad was struggling to figure out what to do with it. The look on his face told me that he had understood the essence of it but was not having any luck with answering the “so what” or “what good will that be” questions that tend to accompany new ideas. I’d estimate that this was in 1993 because my brother and I just happened to be home from university at the same time.

“I can’t answer that exactly, insurance, research, education, and communication obviously. No one really knows and that is the cool thing about it, it’s real, it’s here, and it is going to be everywhere soon enough.”

My dad, looking slightly pensive, like a person who is driving a car in heavy fog, “it’s not like I don’t believe you, I’m just not sure I’ll ever understand it.”

Well he did come to understand it and found it to be one of the most useful inventions that he ever had the good fortune to be alive for. And this conversation with my brother came to mark the beginning of the final phase of my dads learning, one that lasted nearly a quarter century.

When my brother left I asked my dad what they were talking about and he did his best to teach me. He took the idea, the vapour, that my brother had shared and converted it into a thing that I might be able to understand better. In doing so, he also began to understand it.

“He called it the Internet. It’s a thing that you can connect your computer to and it will let your computer connect to other computers. But it’s not like a phone line that connects your computer to another computer, it’s more like your computer becomes the telephone company and everyone else’s computer becomes the telephone company, so everyone is able to connect with everyone else, all at once, and share information instantly.” I obviously had no idea what he was talking about because, at the time, the Internet was not much of a thing, let alone the thing that it is today. I do however have to give him a solid B+ for the description. The Internet is a thing that is very much like what he described.

If I had to list off some of the things that I am glad my dad got to live through, I would put the creation and spread of the Internet very close to the top of the list. He really took advantage of it in a way that added tremendous value and satisfaction to his time on the planet. It gave him access to mountains of information and knowledge that he always suspected was out there and knew would be better written to his brain. Whatever curiosity he had could be indulged at will, meaning the joy / reward he got from learning became available to him, endlessly, effortlessly, and constantly.

On this day, the eighth anniversary of his death, I am thinking about him a lot. I am grateful for having had him in my life for as long as I did and while I would like to be able to talk to him still, I don’t think I would change much about any of it. It would be nice to say “thank you” for believing in me, for letting me know that it is fine to not be satisfied and that it is right and noble to imagine a future that is better than today, and for modelling the making of great sacrifices to turn that vision into the reality we know as here and now. As time rolls on, many of the lessons he tried to pass along continue to work their way through my brain and find their way to the surface. As one of my first and most influential teachers, his words remain and continue to help shape my understanding of the world. In this way, he is still alive and continues to be an amazing father.