“But soon we shall die and all memory of the five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough, all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
– Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Much is made these days of parents who keep their children trapped in molds that have more to do with the needs and ambitions of the parents than with those of the child. This is that story, only in reverse.
It has taken a lifetime, and a pandemic, for me to learn to love my dad for the man that he is and not for the man I’ve imagined or needed him to be.
Growing up everything Dad did seemed larger than life. I all but worshipped him. Where it began I can’t say. I’m no psychologist.
Maybe it was with the Thoreau-inspired cabin he built with Mom in the backwoods of Ontario while I was still in diapers. (Typical to how my parents operated they prioritized the view over the more practical matter of access to water and to this day you have to climb down a steep ledge and whack through brush to get a bucket of water for cooking and washing.)
Or maybe it was the teaching role Dad assumed at a secondary school in the Kikuyu highlands in central Kenya when I was only five. We arrived in the port of Mombasa after a 22-day ocean voyage around the Cape, a part of the so-called “new wave” of nation-building missionaries, energized by the spirit of harambee in post-colonial Africa.
Maybe it was the simple things like Dad going out every morning to milk his cow in the roshishio (rolling mist) behind our little stone house, or the character-rich stories of his childhood on the Bullock farm at Young’s Point in some far-off place called Ontario, or the swirls of smoke from his pipe and lingering smell of Old Port tobacco in the air, or Dad’s weekly ritual of giving me and my three brothers “the workings over”: deep muscle tickles, wrestling locks, bear hugs and whisker rubs that left us breathless with laughter, squealing, and begging for mercy.
Maybe it was Dad’s meal time prayers, full of grounding refrains and pauses in all the right places: “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”
Or maybe it was the tidy stack of books to the side of his desk that always included a New York Times bestselling novel, a tome on world history or cultural anthropology, a classic of English (often Canadian) literature, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Of course it could have been the move to the deserts of Northeast Province when I was twelve and Dad became the founding director of the Garissa Community Services Centre:
a revolutionary experiment in intertribal and interfaith communal living where Kikuyus and Somalis, Muslims and Christians, Canadians and Africans committed to a simple way of life – living in thatched huts, eating together, praying together, and after the evening meal, laying outside on straw mats to count slow-moving satellites and identify constellations in a sky dense with stars together.
Perhaps the parent-worship (Is there a term for this condition?) began with Dad’s seemingly endless capacity for new initiatives to improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor: his province-wide program to eradicate tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali, his partnering with World Vision to pay the school fees of thousands of Somali children, his irrigation projects that defied the odds for farming the desert by pumping water up from the Tana River, his dream of a House of Prayer to be shared by Muslims and Christians with a resource library to mitigate stereotypes and counter centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism and bloodshed.
Or maybe it had something to do with Dad’s height and the way he walked across the desert sand in his ma’awis (traditional Somali wrap) and sandals. He was easy to spot and everywhere Dad went bystanders and children stopped and turned, calling out his Somali name: “Ali Dheri, Ali Dheri” (literally Tall Ali).
All I know is that by the time I left Africa in 1982 to start my undergrad at Trent University I found myself the daughter of a living legend. This was a huge source of motivation and pride for me as I ventured into my early adult years. I strove to live a life as large as his had been.
Then, only six years later, abruptly and without warning (for reasons outside the scope of this narrative), my parents left Africa and returned to restart their lives in Canada.
And almost immediately the myth of Ronald Ward began to unravel.
Of course I didn’t notice at first. The unravelling happened slowly and over time, and besides I had my head buried deep in my own life on the other side of the country.
Nor was it a case of Dad not finding meaningful work back in the land of his birth. Indeed, he was as innovative as ever in reimagining his life back in Canada. But it was never quite the same.
First he tried to interest the Toronto churches in the Somali diaspora at their doorstep but the results were meagre, the divide too great.
He shifted his focus to peace work in the Horn of Africa and initiated negotiations between guerrilla insurgents, church organizations, and embassy staff. But peace work is notoriously difficult and he didn’t have the diplomatic credentials to make a lasting impact.
Meanwhile back in Northeast Kenya, the interfaith community that he had established, and that was to be the breakthrough in Muslim/Christian relations, split down tribal and religious fault lines and disbanded. When I took my two young children and husband to Garissa in 2005 all that was left to show of my childhood home was a cement pad half-hidden by drifting sand.
Dad’s final initiative was to invest in a herd of thirty-five camels. He rallied stakeholders in Canada to back his vision for a dairy transporting anogel (camel milk) from Northeast Kenya to the growing population of Somalis in Montreal, Toronto, and Edmonton. But Dad was in over his head. The bureaucracy imposed by Agriculture Canada was confounding and his camels succumbed to famine and disease. In a single season he lost the whole herd. The dairy never materialized.
All Is Vanity
Shortly after that Dad woke up one day and said “I’m done”, and just like that he was retired. When we visited that summer he was in a state of profound discouragement and spoke openly about failure. “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” he said on more than one occasion, and took to quoting William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.
Instead of letting Dad grieve his losses or, more to the point, instead of grieving them myself I pushed back. “There are other ways to measure success, Dad,” I’d say, trying to get the narrative back on track. My own kids were young then, listening on. I didn’t want them to experience their grandfather as a defeated old man.
And thus began my self-imposed and exhausting midlife work of shoring up Dad’s legacy which, possessively, I felt belonged as much to the next generations as to him. The legacy wasn’t his to squander. All our lives were tied up with it. It needed to be safe-guarded.
The next dimension of Dad’s life to start crumbling was his health. Radiation treatments for prostate cancer destroyed his thighs and the man who had once walked-with-camels now needed help standing up and sitting down. I ordered handle bars for the toilet and became a ready expert at wiping urine from the bathroom floor when we would visit from Vancouver. I couldn’t bear to see my kids plugging their noses behind their grandfather’s back.
Next it was the breakup of his marriage. Mom moved to Toronto to liberate herself from the patriarchy and into life on her own terms, and Dad was left alone rambling around in the Anchorage, our heritage home on the Otonabee River. This shook the legacy to its very foundations. I became skilled at finding euphemisms for the word “divorce” when answering my kids questions about why their grandparents weren’t together anymore: “Oh, they just have different interests.” etc.
When Dad took to drinking an extra glass of sherry in the evenings I became quite the expert at hiding the empties before the children could see them, and when he took to smoking a hookah pipe I was right there to clean up the ash trays and deodorize the sickly-smelling air in his second floor office. Even the stories Dad would tell the kids about Africa sounded eccentric. Unattached to anything real. I found our holiday time in Ontario exhausting. I was in a state of perpetual damage control.
One day Dad phoned to tell me that his doctor had given him “a few years at most”. I mention this because I distinctly remember the sense of relief I felt. Maybe death was the one thing that would keep him from driving his life any further into the ground. Maybe a well-attended funeral service with all the right anecdotes could salvage the vestiges of his former glory. Maybe there was still time for the myth of Ron Ward to be salvaged.
But the doctor had it wrong. Dad lived on, and the losses continued.
After Mom’s departure Dad was unable to cover the re-mortgage payments on the Anchorage and in the summer of 2015, the year I turned 50, our family home was sold. My kids and husband came out from Vancouver to help with the move, carrying boxes of Dad’s things across the village to a rundown, two-bedroom on Strickland St. The shame of it hung in the air and I made sure there was no opportunity for anyone to speak of it. Not in front of the children. I kept everything upbeat.
When we said good-bye the end of that summer I remember thinking how like a stranger the old man sitting alone in his wing-backed chair was to me. For the next five years contact with Dad was minimal, reduced to weekly (if that) phone calls across the country. My kids had entered their teen years and with camps and entry-level jobs their summers were spoken for. Their memory of their grandfather was fading.
Then came the pandemic and the phone call late on the morning of November 27, 2020: Dad had suffered a stroke. With hospital wards at capacity and long-term care homes in crisis, options for the 24/7 supervision he needed were limited. Before I got off the phone I knew that I would go to Lakefield and care for Dad myself.
The next day I flew across the country and before falling into an exhausted sleep on the couch in Dad’s spare room googled “how to change a catheter”.
I was awakened in the night by Dad, disoriented and tottery, his tall frame filling the doorway. I scrambled to steady him and discovered his long-john underwear was soaked through, cold and clammy on his skin. I hadn’t set the catheter properly. I helped him pull his long-sleeved shirt over his head then had him balance himself on the back of a chair while I carefully pulled the bottoms over the tubing down the legs. At the end I was on my knees coaching him on how to lift his heavy feet, one at a time, out of each leg hole.
There were no scripted-for-TV lines, no heroic moments to recount at a funeral. Just Dad standing there, naked and shivering, and me on the ground with his urine-soaked clothing. Outside the window light on snow cast a glow across his face and I saw that his cheeks were wet with tears.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’m right here, Dad. I won’t leave you.”
I got him into dry sleepwear, changed his sheets, and settled him back into bed. When he was asleep I pulled out my laptop again and googled “how to give an old man a sponge bath”
And thus began our daily routine:
Me preparing a steaming basin of water and bathing Dad before he got out of bed every morning;
Him getting settled into his wing-backed chair for the day then combing his hair;
Me cooking eggs and mashed potatoes and other simple salt and pepper seasoned meals;
Him sitting in his wing-backed chair, nodding in and out of sleep;
Me emptying his catheter every few hours;
Him shuffling up and down the hall with his walker for daily exercise;
Me tucking him into bed and turning out his light at night;
Him taking my hand and giving it a squeeze.
As Dad’s speech and general orientation returned we added looking-through-boxes-of-family-archives to our daily routine. I laid the eras of our life as a family on the floor in front of him and together we worked our way through them all, acknowledging the accomplishments that stood for a time then faded away, mulling over events out of our control, marvelling at moments of beauty and goodness and, above all, pondering the miracle of family and friendships and the gift of life weaving its way through everything.
Nothing was off the table. We spoke of it all. And drank coffee. And watched the American election and NHL hockey games with no spectators in the stands. I kept my arm through Dad’s and felt a tenderness and love for him like I had never known before. Echoes of long ago prayers hung in the air: “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”
Then came the phone call saying a place had opened up for Dad in long-term care. I was shocked. I hadn’t expected him to move up the waitlists this quickly. I had thought we’d have months together yet. We had been given twenty-four hours to decide. After a call with my brothers I knew it was the care Dad needed.
I sobbed the day we moved him from his Strickland St. apartment to his new room in long-term care. With COVID-19 restrictions in place we weren’t allowed inside. The intake nurse dressed Dad in full PPE at the entrance and led him away down a hall painted pastel yellow.
My kids flew out from Vancouver to help me pack up their grandfather’s apartment.
I assumed the role of family storyteller and took them on driving tours of Dad’s childhood haunts: the Bullock farm in Young’s Point, the Sweeting Farm on the 10th line of Smith Township, 622 Donegal St. in Peterborough where Dad had lived with his Aunt Gertie during WW II. I knew Dad would want his grandchildren to know about these places.
After lunch the three of us walked through the snow-covered village and over the bridge to Dad’s window at the back of the Lakefield Extendicare. I let the kids go ahead so that they could have time with their grandfather on their own. The gap in the window was only six-inches wide and icicles hung menacingly off the eavestrough above. Still I heard the laughter and the easy banter and witnessed the hands to the heart and other signs of deep affection that passed between them.
And as I watched my near-grown children interact with Dad it occurred to me that for the first time in their lives they were encountering their grandfather for who he was, not for who I wanted them to imagine him to be.
One of my lifelong mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “Love is the attraction of all things toward all things, a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it.”
There are probably as many ways to resist love as there are people on this planet. We all have our defences, hidden or otherwise. I’m grateful love got past mine. There are few freedoms like the freedom of no longer having to protect yourself from the journey your heart longs to take you on.