A friend of the family, who’s known my father for fifty years, once told me, “Your dad is at his best when he’s out of character. And he’s always out of character.”
On this day, when my father celebrates (or tries to ignore, more likely) having lived for three-quarters of a century, I think that peculiar insight is as good an angle as any on the way my dad lives his life.
My father’s best instincts have taken him to places that must have made him uncomfortable. He was a kid from the wrong side of Toronto’s Don River who never let it stop him. He grew up to be a successful professional who made a life working in small towns. Raised in poverty, he worked his way into comfort, and never took it for granted. He took on responsibilities in his family, his church, his community and the world at large in proportion to his success.
Here’s an example of my father’s way of being in the world: When I was a teenager, we once went to give blood together. It was my first time; he already had a certificate from the Red Cross to thank him for having done it dozens of times. I thought he was at ease with the process and I respected him for it. Then I watched as they plunged the needle into his arm and he flinched like crazy. After that I respected him even more. It obviously bothered him every time and he did it anyway, time after time.
He’s a guy who listens more than he speaks, sometimes laughs at the wrong time, but says the right thing in just a few words when the chips are down. And when he doesn’t say anything, he’s setting an example. It took me a while to figure that out. He may or may not be aware of it himself.
Women tend to love my dad: he’s quirky and attentive, and endlessly charming in a self-effacing way. The ladies in his office once gave him an award for always being cheerful and cleaning up after himself. Men admire him, because he’s smart and successful and easy to get along with. He doesn’t measure his masculinity by macho standards, but he doesn’t shirk being a gentleman, either. I have to resort to trickery to pick up the tab at a restaurant when he’s at the table.
My dad’s great with money but still generous. He’s hard-working but loves to relax. He loves his home but travels the world and enjoys it. He loves his kids but gives us tons of room to grow. He’s a rock-solid husband to my mother, and always a caring big brother to my uncle Bill. With his grandkids—a teenager and a baby—he’s at his best just being there. It’s a gift.
Here’s a curious fact worth considering: my father claims to have a terrible memory but never forgets anything important, and never remembers anything hurtful. He seems to thrive entirely in the moment.
My dad is an unlikely hero, I suppose. You might not guess it to look at him, but he’s a terrific athlete. Over the decades he won more awards at tennis and racquetball than I can count, and only stopped when his ankle went on him a few years back. He still plays volleyball and slo-pitch—he was team MVP last year. He’s a keen competitor, but a perfect sportsman on and off the field. I cannot recall ever beating my dad at any sport.
In fact there aren’t many endeavours at which I can out-perform my dad. Carpentry and computers, I’ll grant, and possibly public speaking. But I owe him a debt in all those areas. For a guy who’d describe himself as all thumbs, he managed during the course of our childhood to build a playhouse for us kids, a doghouse, a goalie net, a basketball backboard and a casket for our cat. And what he couldn’t show me about carpentry in the process, he got his best buddy to teach me in exchange for doing his tax return.
Despite an abiding loathing of any device more advanced than an adding machine, my father bought my sister and me a Commodore 64 computer when we were teenagers. It was a visionary purchase that wound up giving me a huge head start on half my generation, and largely defining my career path.
And every time my dad has had to make a speech, whether at a church function, or the Lion’s Club, or a family event, it’s been humble, spontaneous, and bang-on. At his retirement party he started out his remarks by saying, “Anybody who knows me knows I look forward to speaking like I’d look forward to an enema.” That combination of humour, honesty and brevity is dynamite.
I suppose I must be better at playing music than my dad is, but that’s partly because he made a small misstep: when he was sixty-five, and wanted to learn an instrument to augment his life-long love of singing in choirs, he took up the violin. If he’d taken up the ukulele, he’d likely be better at it now than me.
But I wouldn’t be any more proud of him than I am. I couldn’t be.
My dad still does my tax returns every year, and gives me the best advice I get from anyone, on finances, love, and life. “Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is,” he’ll say, or “Common sense is anything but common,” or “No one ever went broke taking a profit,” or “A job worth doing is worth doing well.”
I hated that last one when I was a kid, but the truth of it is plain to me today—like so many things my dad said and did, and says and does.
Here’s another peculiar insight to consider: I feel like I spent the first half of my life trying to be different from my dad. Now that I’m into the second half, I wish I was more like him.
I’m following in his footsteps as best I can, but he’s always ahead of me.
Happy Birthday, Dad. I hope I never catch up.