A blog post one year in the waiting, and decades in the making.
I would like to share some thoughts about a life with my first teacher - my dad.
Just like any young boy, I loved spending time with my dad. There was no need for any rewards because time with dad was reward enough. My earliest memories involved him taking me for a walk down to the creek near our apartment with my little sister in tow. I had sweet rubber boots and an even sweeter one-piece “creek suit” and was free to roam about wherever I wanted. I made dams and sent stick ships down the creek to my amusement. Minutes seemed like hours in those days. We visited all of the parks around the city too. Whenever there was a new park we were early visitors. I couldn’t get enough. And my dad wasn’t the type to sit on the sidelines. He chased my sister and I all around, and encouraged us to be fearless of heights and new challenges. I never heard "don't do that" or "get down from there".
As I got older, we did all those goofy things that most boys and their dads do. We would exit a building and immediately start racing to the car – first one to touch it won (I don’t think I ever did). Other days we would be playing catch and my dad would drop a wicked curveball, or if he really wanted to show off, would fire a heater right down the pipe and into my glove. Sometimes he would show me the power of the short punch, holding his fist inches from my shoulder before thundering in and then calmly asking me to give it a go and pop him back. My attempt always seemed to hurt my small fist more than it did his muscular shoulder.
Spending time with dad almost always involved a trip to downtown. Compared to metropolitan cities, downtown Thunder Bay wasn't much, but to us it was everything and it seemed like my dad knew everyone in town. We were always running into people he knew, and each time we would stop to talk to everyone he would say “hey, you remember my boy, right?” and I remember those big, large men stopping to shake my hand, tussle my hair and perhaps even reach inside their pockets to hand me “two-bits”. Ultimately we’d end up at the Arthur Café where I would be treated to fries with gravy and a coke. I recall my dad walking by tables and grabbing cheques off his friends’ tables and carrying them up to the register and taking care of them. “I got it,” he would say.
On top of this all, my dad was the best hockey player I knew (soooo fast), and just seemed to be that kind of athlete that could try something and just be a natural at it. In his 40s he decided to take on something new, a triathalon, and completed it almost completely on will and natural athletic ability.
As I got older our relationship changed in the ways that they do as kids become teenagers. “Time with dad” just became less of a priority as I explored my independence and time with friends. My dad just rolled with it, but continued to give me what I needed. You got some pocket money? Gas in the tank? Car running ok? He came to watch all my high school basketball games and was always a happy spectator, standing in the back and taking it all in. That pride carried over into University where he always made sure my tuition and books were taken care of. Just like at the Arthur Café, he was still grabbing cheques, but this time they were mine.
Throughout his life as my dad, Tom Fero made his living on the docks of the Thunder Bay waterfront. As a Graintrimmer, his job was to load grain from the harbour elevators on to the lake freighters which would come up the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay from all around the world. As a key break-of-bulk point for prairie wheat, Thunder Bay was a busy place. I knew enough to know that this wasn’t always easy work. Winters in Thunder Bay were bad enough, but a winter on the waterfront was a savage environment of its own. I remember the cold, snow, driving wind and rain, and thinking “Dad is working outside? In this?” I would lie in bed, listening to the intense thunder (the city was appropriately named) and staying partially awake listening for the door to open signalling me that dad was home safe and it was ok to go to sleep. I don’t remember my dad missing a day of work in his life.
This post could not be complete without recognizing that my dad, for all his beautiful ways did have his share of shortcomings. However, like most things with dad, this too had a way of turning itself into a teaching moment and I learned from the person closest to me that not everyone is perfect.
From the tense I have been writing in, you can surely tell where this post is heading. It was just over a year ago that I lost my dad. The tough, athletic, unbreakable man I knew and loved was stopped suddenly by heart failure. In his final days my dad was able to pass quietly, surrounded by the love of those closest to him and under the watchful eye of my beautiful sister who was his faithful sentinel, refusing to leave his side over days and nights. He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him, and used his fading words to only ask others how they were doing, and how life was for them.
Losing a parent is tragically unbearable and I know many others have been unwillingly forced to manage these times as well. I’ve had my tears and my dark moments, but I hold the best thoughts closely. When I think of my dad, I smile. I smile because my memory can easily transport me. When I close my eyes...
I still hear the slow trickle of the creek by the apartment.
I still feel the bony arch of my back as I sneak past dad’s tag on the park.
I still sense that anticipation that our next race to the car would be mine.
My hand stings from the fastball, and the shoulder from the short punch.
I still taste the fries with gravy.
I still see his hair flowing from his helmet as he streaks down the right wing.
I still feel that sense of comfort afforded when the front door opened after a cold, rainy night.
He’s always standing quietly in the background at my game.
I always have pocket money. The gas tank is always full. The car runs fine.
I will never forget looking into his beautiful blue eyes and sharing our final farewell: speaking the words “I love you” and hearing the same in return.
My first teacher was mine from birth. While he never set out to teach me one lesson in particular, he ended up teaching me almost everything I needed to know. There will always be a lot to smile about.