It is a bittersweet Father’s day as I sit and ponder how long dad will be with us. We celebrated his birthday last Sunday as he turned 89 on Monday, June 15. Today, he is palliative, unable to walk or feed or care for himself. I fed him his dinner last night for the first time. When we are alone, he shares the fear that I can see in his eyes and at other times, he shares the frustration of having to be totally reliant on hospital staff for his every need.
Two weeks ago, dad was still able to shave himself and go for a short walk to the store on his own. Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer are taking a toll on his feeble body and his mind and when he is lucid, he realizes the state his life is in and longs for what he had just a few short weeks ago. He is still able to display his keen sense of humour as yesterday when Pauline asked him if he was in pain, he queried, incredulously , “ Am I insane” We dissolved into laughter, as underneath the pain and confusion is dad’s trademark sense of humour. It is perhaps this wit and sense of humour that earned him the nickname, “Big Ray’.
It was a very special birthday celebration; very special childhood friends whom he considers to be his siblings as they lived under one roof for part of their childhood, surrounded Dad. They worked and played music together and had wonderful stories about their early lives and all the mischief they created together. Mostly though, music unites them. Dad, Percy, and Fred reminisced about playing at Dick’s hall for community wedding and New Year’s dances. Fred was the bandleader and they called themselves “The Saints”. Fred’s fishing boat bore that name. Percy told a story about having to step in as the drummer when the regular drummer was not available and he was so good that he became the drummer. Fred told a story about a time when they were playing for a dance and during a break, dad went to the washroom and came back to the stage with a big black eye. Fred asked him who he ran into and dad told him and they dissolved into yet another bout of laughter. Hard of hearing and old, they shared many stories about the life and the legacy that they shared; it was a precious afternoon as it is one that can never be revisited again. Dad grew tired after awhile and had to go for a nap. He cares deeply about the few Heiltsuk elders who remain especially his dear cousin Peggy; they spent a lot of time together as children and share a special bond.
Dad was born in 1926 in Bella Bella at a time when the flip the switch comforts we now enjoy did not exist. Homes were warmed with wood stoves; evenings were lit with coal oil lamps and plumbing was non-existent in homes. Dad was born at home with only family members helping granny at his birth. He was born into a society that was at its heart, family-oriented; as they had to work together in order to survive. Food gathering was central to daily living. Dad recalls going out fishing, hunting, and trapping with his dad and when I last asked him, he was able to recall exactly where their trap lines were. He fondly recalls going out fishing with his dad and his Uncle Willie and playing tricks on them when he became bored. One was replacing the bowl of sugar with salt; whenever he tells that story, he laughs so hard that he can hardly finish telling the story.
As a young child, dad nearly died. He recalls a near-death experience where Granny and her sisters sat weeping at his bedside as he looked over them from above. As a result, he truly believes in life after death. Dad knows he is not long for this world and he speaks candidly about it with me and with others that he trusts and loves. At his residential school hearing several years ago, Vic and I sat beside him as he gave horrific testimony about the atrocities that he endured as an innocent child at the hands of the Anglican church personnel at St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay BC. It is clear why he did not participate in our traditions as Heiltsuk people. Instead, he threw himself in hard work and when he got into it, heavy drinking. I am sure he drank to forget. He did sober up and he beat death again by surviving cancer in his 60s.
Dad’s path has been a tough one as over time the fishing industry became less and less reliable for his livelihood. He took a leap at an opportunity to move up to a bigger boat at a time when interest rates were so high that he had to back away from a mortgage and a boat when he could no longer finance the investment. He retired and focused on cycling and playing music. If he had regrets, he rarely speaks of them.
Music has always sustained dad. His rip-roaring parties from his youth were balanced by solemn and heartfelt hymns that he played at home or at funeral services even when he grew too weak to carry his own accordion. At his 89th party, he was unable to play but he mustered up the energy to lead us in singing one of his all time favourites, as a tribute to the band he and his brothers played in. Please enjoy, “When the Saints Go Marching In”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyLjbMBpGDA
So on Father’s Day, I want to pay tribute to the fact that dad instilled in me the expectation that I would attend university and that was that. It became my path and I never veered from it and my life and career path have been good ones. Thank you for this dad and Happy Father’s Day. I love you as much now as I did when I was your adoring little girl. Listening to you sing this to me is one of my earliest memories, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIPhBrBrqLk Jan