My dear Dad died after living 100 years and 268 1/2 days.
He taught me that life was for living and to just get on with it. This was no better illustrated than the story he would often tell of hitchhiking from Ottawa down to the southern states, with nothing more than the clothes on his back. When asked if he didn’t think it would have been a good idea to take money or heck, even a toothbrush, he’d say, “Nah. I figured I’d stay at the ‘Y’ and they’d feed me and give me a bed for the night.” Indeed.
Granted, this was during the 40s when times were more innocent and you could rely on the kindness of strangers. He would laugh remembering the story of the trucker who stopped and, upon letting him climb up into his cab, asked, “You don’t have a gun, do you?” to which my surprised and suddenly anxious Dad replied, “No…do you??”
Eight days after he died, I could no longer stand the pain,
so I got out of “Dodge” myself.
Grabbing a few clothes, a toothbrush, some dog food and of course, the dog, Scout and I took off. But first, I needed a coffee for the road; this was a choice that cost me one hundred dollars before I’d even hit the highway – yes, I did park in a “no parking” zone but I was only there for a moment. Then, on the highway, not even out of city limits, my phone rang and the voice on the other end said my car was being recalled for “corrosion.” “Is that all?” I said. “I’m driving to Florida.” What’s a bit of corrosion, especially to a ten-year old car and Ottawa winters, I thought.
I had driven to Florida before but never on my own and never with this dog. This dog who had barely been in a car, or been around the block two and half years ago. But this dog rode like she’d always been my co-pilot. With a softly placed paw, gently letting me know that it was ok, and I letting her know that this long journey would indeed have a reward at the end.
Dad used to say, “Why the heck would you want to go to Florida?” The sun, sand, heat, hoards of tourists….what’s down there worth seeing? Of course, what he meant was that there was not one good antiquarian book store in the whole of Florida, unlike his beloved London or Manhattan.
My Dad never took his shirt off; well, for a shower, yes, but his default outfit was forever and always a suit, a crisp white shirt and tie. “You have to dress the way you want to be treated,” he’d say. Oh well. I guess I just wanted to be treated like a regular person.
And Dad would also say,
“Always that dog.” Yes indeed. He finally got me.
There are memories I hold dear. Like the time he told me of his own beloved childhood dog who had died and showed me that he too had lost a cherished companion. Like the time he would tell me that he was proud of me after first doubting my abilities to pursue a dream. He told me about the day he had to deliver a speech at a work conference and going AWOL from fright. I believed the story at the time he told it, but realize now that it was likely not true, but might have been what he wanted to do — it was his way of showing me he also experienced self-doubt.
To me, he rarely exhibited any kind of frailty. Even in his 101st year. As he shuffled impossibly with his cane, staying upright despite his pronounced stoop, and then with his walker (the walker I’m now selling for $125 * — a price that seems to be an insult to the man it supported), he personified strength and dignity. On the day of his diagnosis of kidney failure, he was offered two choices: pursue dialysis several times a week at the hospital or let nature take its course. He made his decision swiftly – the choice was easy. Like he always said when I wanted to buy him a new pair of socks or pajamas, “the law of diminishing returns Ails (he would always call me) … I’m too old to spend good money on.”
That damned raincoat.
I can’t tell you the number of times I took it to the dry cleaners to try to get the stains off of it: the ice cream, the chocolate, the Pepsi, the whipped cream, the smoked meat sandwiches. I do believe it was the same raincoat he wore on his honeymoon, but now with a new lining that protruded at the cuffs but held it together otherwise. I contemplated buying him a new one but it came down to finding the exact same raincoat, which of course doesn’t exist, unless you’re buying a vintage one on Etsy for a few hundred dollars. And that is what I paid for his pajamas, made in the UK and shipped by an English friend to me here. He had to have pajamas that had a drawstring at the waist; not elastic, mind you, a drawstring. I defy you to find any such thing in the colonies!
Sometimes when I came into his bedroom during the day and found his coat on his bed I’d ask, “Why is your raincoat draped over your bed Dad?” “Because I was cold,” he’d say. So I got him an electric blanket and hoped he wouldn’t fry himself.
Jack Peter Francis was a voracious reader and his books of choice never seemed shorter than 500 pages. I would order them for him on Amazon and a couple of days after they were delivered, he’d be reading them for the second time. I remember telling him once the name of the book I was reading and he seemed interested by the title, Sapiens. I bought him a copy and when I asked him a few days later how it was, he essentially implied that it was a book version of the “History of Mankind for the Simple-minded.” No beating around the bush there from someone who I imagine devoured Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in one sitting. It was a stinging review.
Jack Peter Francis was a respected and conscientious civil servant, but he was not selfishly ambitious. He always said that when he was in public service, he saw what needed to be done and simply did it. He had little patience for people who sat on the sidelines and didn’t just take the reins. I remember visiting his downtown office when I was young and being impressed and surprised by his obvious importance: outside his door was an efficient and friendly secretary. Inside was a huge desk with an equally huge chair. He had what he proudly called a “Jack Shadbolt” (before I knew what or who that was) on one wall and a fully stocked bar on the other. There was a pipe in his desk drawer which he would not so much smoke as pose with while leaning back in his chair and looking pensive. But I do remember the sweet scent of it when he’d light up after dinner in his basement study.
Jack Peter Francis was a believer in charity. He embraced good causes and practiced tithing, giving money to the church, the Green Party, his daughters … he was always offering aid but in our case, there was a catch: it was that painful discussion about investments we hadn’t made, pensions we hadn’t started, savings accounts we hadn’t opened and budgeting we never did. As a professional economist, I can’t tell you what an irony it is that his daughters inherited so little of his financial DNA. As a result, you learned never to bring up the subject of money unless you had a stiff drink waiting for you.
Jack Peter Francis was a joker. He took great relish in making the paperboy squirm, which he did at the front door by asking him in the sternest voice he could muster, which was pretty stern, “What’s the damage?” when he came to collect. I’m sure the poor kid was left imagining what window he had broken or tree branch he had mangled. I remember he had little patience reading to his children; as a result, he would embellish or even change the story. For years I recall being apoplectic when he prematurely killed off Aslan, the heroic lion in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia — WAIT….I REALIZE AT THIS VERY MOMENT that Aslan did indeed die, by the hands of the White Witch in the first book of the series — until he rose again. The parallels to Christianity are unmistakable to me now, but of course at the time I believed he resurrected Aslan purely because of my protestations.
Jack Peter Francis possessed a fierce intellect. He would demand much but not more than he demanded of himself. He believed that you had to travel your own path, exercising your brain and keeping it well seasoned. I remember standing in front of the glass display in the British Museum that housed the Rosetta Stone when I was 18 and saying to him, “What is the Rosetta Stone?”, to which he replied, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE ROSETTA STONE IS?” and then promptly walked away. I didn’t realize it at the time, as I was too overcome with the feeling that I had disappointed him, but this tactic was meant to challenge me – to push me headlong into doing my own work. He would not spoon feed anyone, let alone his daughters. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But I craved his admiration, so that’s what sent me off to university.
Jack Peter Francis admitted when he was wrong. Mind you, that wasn’t often, but when he said that we’d have to tell the woman I’d be renting an apartment from during my first year at the University of Toronto that my roommate wasn’t white, and I said, “But why? What difference should that make?”, he thought for a moment and blessedly agreed. And if it had been up to him, he would have said goodbye to Skye-dog when she was first diagnosed with lymphoma – I never let him forget (and he relented that he was wrong) that I didn’t give up on her and as a result, she lived another 5 1/2 healthy and active years.
Jack Peter Francis was a friend, but only if you measured up, otherwise he might make small talk but don’t count on much else. Luckily I had an “in” being family, as I’m not sure if he would have given me the time of day otherwise. And when he finally realized that I was never going to become a dental hygienist, much to his dismay (we joked about that days before he died – no offense to dental hygienists everywhere), he always made a point of applauding my efforts and saying I didn’t charge nearly enough for my gardening services. He was my epic marble playing competitor, my lawn mowing teacher, my mentor in learning, my inspiration in life.
I say his name like this because I’ve learned that when someone dies, the first thing that happens is that their name is erased. Erased from bank accounts, erased from cheques, the evidence of their existence in the form of birth certificates, passports, social insurance numbers — all of them cancelled.
I know why my Dad lived to 100. You see, early in his life as a parent, he didn’t express his affection for us very openly. There were few hugs, few words of encouragement, few expressions of love. I realize now he was too busy trying to make sure we were financially secure and was too distracted first, by his career and then, by his all-consuming hobby. It took him more than 90 years to recognize what really mattered: and that is, the love of your family and that love expressed. It wasn’t until my Dad was well on in age that I began to hear “I love you” and “You’re a great kid Ails” every single time we were together. Those words will always remain with me…
He accepted his end with grace. All we could do was make sure he was surrounded by our love and that we were all there next to him, honouring his wishes. And then he said, “It pains me to leave you.”
It pains me that you’re gone Dad.
* I ended up donating his walker, not selling it, to a man who’d had a stroke and was on disability. Dad would have liked that.