In the crisscross of lakeside streets surrounding my family home, we always ran to the west.
To the east, a solid block of suburbia, the north, traffic-laden streets. To the south, lake. So we ran west, on the 3.5 ks that constituted Dad’s requisite devotion to health among his offspring. It wasn’t obligatory, but he’d make it known his disappointment if you balked.
Four blocks down, the street dips to a long-forgotten creek, now running through a storm pipe. One block down, one block up, with a steep finish, at just the right distance to make you question whether you could really be bothered that night. As you crested, you sweated past the old red brick buttresses of St. Jude’s Anglican.
My father had no use for it. His cathedral was the natural world. He spent his formative summers split between my grandfather’s lakeside cottage and his boyhood camp, where his thick glasses and distracted countenance – something genetics has kindly bestowed upon me – saw him develop somewhat of a competitive streak, and a love of the pines and clear waters of the north country.
Like my grandfather, he was booted from high school before completion. He spent his twenties racing motorcycles, winning junior championships, before a road accident quelled his enthusiasm. He then married, raced sailboats, and raised the lot of us. He grew a business from three partners to over forty employees, in part from his complete inability to relax his grip. Competitiveness and fierce independence permeated his style, both in recreation, and in business, while a Scots temperance dominated his downtime.
While his gawky youthful manner was passed down, this taste for rankings didn’t. I found myself naturally gifted at many of his chosen pursuits, but the drive to push myself like he did wasn’t there, which frustrated him. Why the investment, he asked, if there wasn’t any real devotion? But my quick-study nature and taste in books and music beget a source of pride, as it developed, even if the work ethic didn’t.
When he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, his reaction was typical. He sat us down and told us his health was not good, but that we were financially secure. That was it. Phrases like ‘metastasized’ and ‘six months’ were left out. To my seventeen-year-old ears, he made it sound like just one more obstacle to be outwaited.
And he did. Five years passed. Five years of varying treatments, hormone adjustments, dozens of doctors, one sports-ish car – still practical enough for the snow – which we drove the Pirellis off of. We still spent each summer in the same manner we always had, sailing the Great Lakes, pushing further and further afield in to the northern reaches, just the two of us, his health issues backburned to the point of non-existence. We covered ground, to some nigh-untouched regions replete with wolf packs and caribou, having them all to ourselves. I’d fish during the early mornings and evenings. We read piles of books. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t need to.
I recall a harbour entrance one summer, during some foul weather, on Lake Superior’s wild east coast. The high cliff walls of the coast deflected the breeze, and we crash-gybed, with me standing on the bridge-deck, the boom wiping me out. I flew in to the life lines, temporarily knocked out, and proceeded to bleed heavily in to the cockpit drains. He didn’t sleep that night, even for a moment, constantly prompting me to stay awake, fearing a concussion. He was a worried man. It was one of the only cracks in his facade that I remember.
He took his treatment and his licks without complaint, determined to keep his problems his own. One day, in early 2007, he left the house, and turned west. With his heart weakened by his treatments and a genetic condition, he would have felt the first inklings of trouble as he climbed out of the creek. He pushed on for a few more painful steps before collapsing, three months short of his 63rd birthday, neatly in front of the church garden where his mother’s and daughter’s ashes lay.
His cancer had been declared in remission only weeks before. Those acts of god can really stick it in and twist it.
He’d run his race, but there was no peace to be had. I was bitter. I scraped through university and left for good, determined to chase the blue water he’d always envisioned sampling for himself, freed from the yoke of academia – and admittedly, expectation.
If I was seeking some flair for the dramatic I’d mention something about seeing myself in him, but I don’t. I only knew him in his final two decades, so maybe this will come with time. But, the man set a high bar, for his successes, for his temperance, and for the opportunities we had. As much as his inflexibility created friction, there’s no doubt played a role in his ability to live a life based very much on his own terms. That much I can admire.
Making sense of the senselessness of life and death isn’t the purpose of this. Time is limited. Becoming wrapped up in your own self-indulgent tripe or autobiographical moaning must be viewed as a luxury. He deserved to see the birth of his grandkids, and enjoy the fruits of his labour in a semi-retirement, but here, there is no right or wrong. And what purpose do such yearns serve? Nature is ruthlessly practical, just as he was.
Nonetheless, here’s to you. I hope Patrick O’Brian is still churning out classical fiction, that everyone gets out of the left lane, and the water is flat calm at dusk.