When Love Trumps Legacy: A Daughter-Father Pandemic Story

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.

 

The Stoplog cabin in the North Kawarthas.

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.  

 

Dad giving me the workings over, “to remove all the bad spots.”

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:

Me with my parents and three brothers outside our home in Garissa.

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.  

 

Dad in his Somali wrap and sandals giving a tour of the irrigation project on the Tana River.

 

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. 

 

Dad in his broom closet of an office trying to bridge Toronto churches and the Somali diaspora.

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.

Dad with a newborn in the camel herd he sponsored.

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.

The view from the deck outside Dad’s second floor office window at the Anchorage.

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. 

 

Abigail and Oliver at the barn behind the Anchorage, August 2015.

 

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:

Dad settled in his wing-backed chair.

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. 

Dad’s window at the Lakefield Extendicare.

 

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. 

 

Abigail and Oliver at the Sweeting Farm where their grandfather spent his summers as a child.

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. 

 

Oliver and Abigail visiting with their grandfather outside his window at Lakefield Extendicare.

 

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.

 

Dad from the other side of his window at Lakefield Extendicare.

 

10 comments

  1. Jean Balisky says:

    Thank you Tama for your journey with your Dad and the love you poured out to him, in return how God returned that love in your heart as well. You are a gem and I know God will honour you in many ways. Talk about love in action.

    Been a long time since I have seen any of you, this Covid has surely changed our lives, but if you are ever in this area would love to have you visit. My travelling days are pretty well over. God bless you all and thank you again.
    Love, Aunt Jean

    • Tama says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Aunt Jean. I look forward to visiting some day soon, and to hearing your reflections on life in the home stretch: what’s worth holding on to and what should be let go, etc. In the meantime keep spreading that warm and generous love of yours.

  2. Anne-Marie Hughes says:

    What a beautiful honest reflection on your relationship with your father. My mom had a stroke in October. Six weeks of rehab, four without any visitors to cheer her on or be involved in her therapy. She is quite mobile luckily and has my father. It’s still a journey as they will be moving into independent living soon and then figuring out what we are doing with the house with more of my dads artwork than you could fit in ten condos. I am lucky to be here in Saskatoon. Your writing still inspires me as it did when we were setting up plays at SFA. I will say a prayer for you and your family tonight.

    • Tama says:

      Thanks Anne-Marie. Our is the first generation to have parents living on that much longer than their predecessors. In this way we are entering un-navigated terrain. I call it a fourth level course in the school of love. Prayers for the transition that lies ahead for all of you.

  3. Eric Westberg says:

    Thank you Tama for this. I worked a bit on the camel dairy project. Glad to have connected however briefly to your Dad’s passion and bold ideas. Such complexity and shades of grey.

    Who would not be dazzled by the well-read adventurer entrepreneur archetype?

    • Tama says:

      Thanks Eric. Dad and I came across a photo of you with one of the camels from his herd.I’m glad you got a taste of that time and all its potential.

  4. Merry Carol says:

    Thank you Tama; For considering your father’s story and your own… for not stopping at the first draft but letting truth AND Love weave into the story as you write it now. My heart grieves for the many ways we hide from our selves the truth; when it becomes a story we don’t want to hear or tell… how depression and loss and discouragement do change the way one lives. Keep going Tama, your story is not yet complete either. I’m happy to have a distanct and compassionat view from the stands, but please do keep my in the arena as your story continues.

    • Tama says:

      Thanks Merry Carol. Sometimes we want to close the book before the last chapter only to discover, as grace would have it, that the last chapter is the best. I’ll look for you in the arena!

  5. catherine hawley says:

    Tama ,
    I have been in tears over your beautiful writing …. soaked in your unending courage to be ”real” and true of heart , and to see clearly no matter how costly . In other words … LOVE .
    THANKYOU THANKYOU .
    with so much love from ..catherine

  6. Al Kehler says:

    I got to know your Dad in the Horn of Africa Policy Group – we met in Ottawa. I represented the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Ron Ward was there for the Canadian Baptist Federation. He fascinated me. And then I worked with Philip in WFP although never closely. I have wondered for years what became of my friend Ron, and today I found this. I found this because Philip’s picture with two little girls showed up on my Facebook page. Oh! Paul & Lila are treasured friends from Ethiopia days. (I’m getting old I’m thinking…) Thanks for writing that about Ron Ward.

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