My Dad died almost 5 months ago. Below is a version of what I said at his memorial service. The three photos are a few of what we have from his time in Singapore when he served with the RAF. I hope you find something here to allow you to stop, wonder and listen just a little more.
Harold Peck wrote me a personal letter dated December 24/2003, almost exactly ten years before the date of his death. Harold was my dad. He would have liked an even ten; he loved numbers. He loved accounting, knowing how many miles he was getting to the gallon, and balancing his chequebook. He enjoyed knowing that he’d got a good deal from Sears. And he was always checking the time—like clockwork. The face of his watch was always worn on the underside of his wrist. My last conversation with him was about the time.
My father has, in some way, influenced everything I know and do today. The good I will credit to him; I will take full responsibility for everything else.
It’s not unfair that you’re gone, Dad; what is unfair to me is how you were treated by life. I don’t believe God has some kind of overarching blueprint for our lives as we all go about them from day to day. There may indeed be a plan, but that doesn’t mean things will work out accordingly; life is full of paradox, complexity, and contradiction. My dad understood this and yet he was a patient, loving, generous, and hospitable man. Or maybe it was because he understood it. His favourite saying was “Worse things happen at sea.”
Watching Harold read a newspaper was excruciating. The neurological delay that messed with his ordinary abilities, the skip in his physiology, the unwanted movements—three decades of Parkinson’s disease that took the life out of my dad minute by minute. It slowly chiselled away everything that made him human. And then there were the medical interventions. A pallidotomy, where a surgeon drilled a small hole in his head and cauterized brain cells while he lay awake for over eight hours; an aortic bypass; a posterior cervical fusion and laminectomy, twice: once for the original surgical fix, and the second as a result of breaking the original titanium rods implanted in his neck. The hardware had apparently loosened over time; the hyperkinesis of Parkinson’s can rattle even the tightest screws.
I don’t for a metaphysical second think that things happen for a reason. That notion brings me no comfort whatsoever. There is no good reason why my dad had Parkinson’s, or why my mother had to act as his diligent caregiver for the past 31 years. Where meaning comes into play, though, is in the way we as a family have banded together and reacted—mostly well, sometimes poorly, and always lovingly. We will continue to honour my Father’s memory and a steadfast disregard for his disease; I trust we will grow closer together, too.
The reasons we so often long for, in these kinds of situations, come after. Never before. They arise out of our personal grief and reflection and are intimately bound up in our freedom to choose wisely and responsibly.
Being a father is hard work—joyful, difficult, rewarding, and consequential work. My dad didn’t mind working hard. He taught me much and believed in loving others, showing that mostly through the hospitality he and my mother so willingly gave to friends and family. Our home was often full of other people. My dad was a generous guy, too: from among his few remaining possessions I saved his well-worn letter opener, remembering how he sat in our living room chair with stacks of opened envelopes on his left and receipts and requests from non-profit organizations on his right. Giving was his way of life.
Harold loved ping-pong, found incredible joy in his work, and took pleasure in chestnuts, reading the newspaper, stamp collecting, and listening to Ray Sonin on CFRB: “Calling All Britons”. When it came to cooking, warming up a can of beans pushed his envelope. He enjoyed commiserating with dogs, throwing a Frisbee, and reading Herman comics. He had wanted to emigrate to Australia and came to Canada instead. He had a deep, infectious laugh that, once started, was tough to stop.
Plato said, “To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not…no one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man, but people dread it as though they were certain it is the greatest evil.” My dad was not afraid to die. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d been looking forward to it for some time. His body had been failing for the past 30 years and had long overshot its expiry date. I know he was ready to go. He looked peaceful lying there, and I’m glad he left us quickly and quietly.
I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye; that will haunt me for some time. But my mom Nancy was there, just the way he wanted it. Together they said goodbye without exchanging words. Pardeep, one of his care workers, commented after offering her condolences, “I think they were too close.”
Death is, without a doubt, an uncertain certainty, but for my dad it was only a transition. He didn’t have much to say in his ten-year-old letter to me. It was no magnum opus. I so wish he had written more, but I guess I will have to wait: my dad must have had other plans as he finished his one-pager to me with the words, “Until we meet again.”