Memories of my dad

My earliest memories of my father were always fleeting.  I knew who he was but he was never around much.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized he worked two full time jobs.

He worked at a meat packing plant from 5:00 am to 2:00 pm.  From 2:00 pm until sometimes 8 or 9 pm at night, he worked as a landscaper and gardener.

It was this work ethic that he instilled upon his children, including me.  We were taught that no one was going to take care of us unless we took care of them first.

My father was a strong, but, quiet individual.  Quiet until you got to know him or piss him off.  Then, watch out.  He could take you down with one glance or a carefully worded insult.  My father was not a man to be trifled with.

He was born on April 21, 1920.  His parents had 8 children and lived in a small community in the northern province of Friesland, The Netherlands.  He had a busy childhood, helping his father on their dairy farm.  My father’s history is vague as I was not able to collect as much information about him and his family.  Something, I truly regret.

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This is a portrait of my father’s parents.

My paternal grandfather was killed in the Second World War – leaving his wife with 8 children to raise.  My grandfather’s death is still somewhat of a mystery to me.  I will try to fill in those blanks when I manage to speak with my mother.

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My father was left being the head of the household after this tragic event.  He helped raise my aunts and uncles until the war ended and then, in 1953, he, my mother, my oldest brother, my sister and my father’s two youngest brothers all packed up to move to Canada.  In the spring of 1953, the family boarded the S.S. Groete Beer passenger ship

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The passenger list shows my entire family at that time.

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I was able to find this information when Alex and I traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia back in 2012.  This was an amazing journey and I was filled with goose bumps when I saw my family’s names on the passenger manifest.

After a brief stay in Halifax, the family bundled up and headed West, stopping everywhere between Halifax and finally stopping in Edmonton, Alberta.  This is where my family began to put down roots.

They lived in Edmonton until 1966 when we moved to our home in St. Albert, Alberta – just five minutes north of Edmonton.  A very small bedroom community.

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This is the home that I remember the best.  I felt safe here, I felt protected here.  This was a great place to grow up.

My father did that.

My relationship with my father has always been one of contrast.  He was never overly demonstrative to me – I always suspected that he knew I was different from his other children.  I was more artistic, less athletic, more into reading than playing sports, more into film, books, music.  My father never knew how to deal with all of this so we just didn’t.

More my fault than his, I suppose.  I never trusted him or the rest of my family to accept that I was gay.  I had read so many horror stories about people being disowned by their families.  That filled me with such dread.  What would happen to me if I came out and they threw me away?  What would I do?  Where would I go?  How would I cope?

These questions forced me into striking out quickly on my own.  I moved out when I was just 18 years old.  My other siblings all stayed home until they were married.  Some of them were in their late 20’s before that happened. Not me. I needed to be able to be independent for fear of them discovering my secret.

So, I remained in the closet and suffered greatly for it.  I drank too much, I smoked too much, I didn’t eat well, etc, etc. So, in 1986 when the opportunity came to move to the West Coast, I jumped at it.  If I could put enough distance between me and my family, I could begin to take those tentative steps out of the closet.  If and when I told my family, I would be established in my own life and I could carry on without them – or at least that was the plan.

My father would have none of that, though.  My parents would begin to come out to Vancouver every 4 or 5 months just to visit (I believe it was more to check up on me).

They would drive out, spend a week or so with me, filling up my cupboards with food, bringing me small appliances like a microwave oven or a vacuum cleaner.  Every day that they were out, we would be out touring the sights and sounds of the West Coast, but, invariably, we would wind up at a store where they would buy me another item because, in their words, “If we are coming to visit this much, we are going to be comfortable!”

Even though I proclaimed loudly that I was independent, I still had my parents as a safety net.

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When it came time for me to get a new vehicle, my parents co-signed the loan without a second thought.  When I was running short on groceries, my father would slip me a hundred dollars and tell me to take care of myself.

Normally when I would call my parents, my father would answer, ask about the weather and then ask if I wanted to talk to my mom.  He would then hand the phone over to her and that would be the end of our conversation.  This made me frustrated.  I was desperate to have a relationship with my father, to seek his approval but, it wasn’t every going to happen

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We would continue this slow building of our relationship right up until December 2002.  Out of the blue, he called me on Christmas Eve.  I was on my way to my friend’s house to celebrate Christmas with her and her family.  My cellphone rang, I answered and it was my father.

I asked him if everything was okay.  It was so unusual for him to call.  He had only ever done it once before.  He said, everything was fine.  He just wanted to wish me a merry Christmas.  I thanked him and said, I was good.  There was a brief pause and then he said, “I just want to know one thing:  Are you happy?”

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I was floored.  I started shaking.  HE KNEW!  OH GAWD, HE KNEW!

I stammered out, “Yes, dad.   I guess I am! I have a great life here.  I have friends.  I have people who love me.  What more could I ask for?”

He said, “Good, because you know all I ever wanted for you is to be happy.”

Another blow to my stomach,

I reassured him that I couldn’t have been happier.  He then told me that he was getting ready to go out with Mom to see my brothers and sister.  That conversation was the last one we ever had. That conversation will stick with me for as long as I live

By the last week of January 2003, I got a phone call from my oldest brother advising me to get home.  My dad was in the hospital and it wasn’t looking good.

My father smoked for 40 years.  He had emphysema and it was getting worse every year. The last 5 years had my dad on Oxygen 24 hours a day.

I got to Edmonton that afternoon.  We drove straight to the hospital where my father was comatose.  My entire family was there, except my youngest brother and his wife.  My father demanded that they go on their planned trip to Las Vegas and so they went.

I acknowledged my family, kissed my mom and went to my dad.  He was struggling for every breath.  I held his hand for a few minutes and talked to him through a veil of tears.

I went and found his doctor who told me that my dad was fading fast and that we should be prepared.  A massive weight just dropped on me.  I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t react.  I just stood there frozen for what I thought was an eternity.

Eventually, my world came back into focus.  I went back to my dad’s bed.  I leaned in and whispered very softly to him, “Dad, I love you.  I think you want to go somewhere else.  Anywhere but here.  You need to know that you can go if you want.  We will be okay.”

I left with my oldest brother and we went to his house.  I was exhausted.  I went to lie down and fell asleep.  I was jolted awake at just after midnight.  It was the hospital calling to let us know that he died.

I found out that he passed away, about an hour after the last of my family left to go home and get some rest.  Perfect timing on my dad’s part.  I honestly believe that he planned it that way.  He wouldn’t leave knowing that someone was watching him. Typical of my dad.  He never wanted to burden anyone.  This was his way of making sure that didn’t happen.

Writing this, I feel a wave of sadness.  I had so much I wanted to say to him.  I wanted to show him so much.  I wanted him to meet Alex, who I had started dating the year before but, had only gotten serious in the latter part of 2002.

Somehow, though, I think he knew that I was embarking on a new chapter in my life with someone I truly wanted to spend the rest of my life.

My dad was a good dad but, he was the BEST FATHER.  I will always treasure the time we had.

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Published by Al Zylstra

a somewhat erudite wannabe writer with aspirations of not putting people to sleep with my prose....

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