Husband, father, optimist. Born on May 24, 1924, in Birmingham, England; died on Dec. 11, 2013, in Ottawa, of pneumonia, aged 89.
My sister and I were in Thailand when our brother called with the news: Our dear step-father had died in the middle of the night, our mother at his side. We were hit hard. Although Alan had battled Parkinson’s disease for many years, none of us – my mother, brother, sister and I – were prepared for his death. Perhaps no preparation is possible for the loss of a loved one. Or perhaps Alan’s very nature – his proud bearing despite a debilitating disease – had made us believe that he would live forever.
Alan, a widower with a grown son, became our step-father in 1986, 15 years after our father’s death. Although none of us were living at home, he became the father we missed. Wonderfully unassuming, incredibly well-read – a buff historian – he was generous and selfless, and completely devoted to our family.
Alan’s childhood in England was filled with loss and disappointments, beginning with his mother’s death when he was a child. His father was authoritarian, incapable of nurturing his son, subjecting him instead to various humiliations. When 15-year-old Alan asked for a motorcycle, his father readily agreed and took him shopping. When the boy settled on one particular bike, his father simply stood there until Alan asked if he was going to pay for it. “Who, me?” his father replied. “I thought you were going to buy it.” They returned home without the motorcycle.
When he was 16, Alan left home and joined the merchant marines. There, he endured all sorts of initiation rites, which he later recounted as amusing anecdotes. “Go downstairs and get a piece of string and a long weight,” they told him, and he waited, and waited, and waited.
He served in the Royal Navy from 1941 until 1946, participating in the North African campaign. Imagine a teenager, on board ships, during the Second World War, in constant peril, yet also in a constant state of exhilaration as he discovered a world vastly different from his narrow upbringing.
How he loved to tell us about his adventures in Algiers, or Oran, or Malta or Ceylon, or any of the many countries he visited. He had an excellent ear for languages; even in his later years, in hospitals, he would easily strike up conversations in foreign languages whenever he encountered nurses and doctors from elsewhere.
After the war, Alan worked for Cadbury Chocolate in Bournville, England, before moving to Canada in 1956 with his first wife, Edna, and young son Trevor, “in a romantic search for a new life,” as my mother said. They settled in Vancouver, where Alan worked for General Motors until his retirement in 1987. We never knew what kind of work he did at GM, and when we asked him, he would respond with an enigmatic, “I work to be happy.”
Despite his harsh upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Alan was a gentle, generous soul. True to his character, he never spoke about his achievements, and it was only after his death that I saw his war medals. I wish I had been a better listener to his stories. I wish I had asked a lot more questions.
He was a loving, steadfast companion to my mother, Maria Verbena, and together they renovated or built eight homes in Vancouver, before moving to Ottawa in 2011. He was dependable and always willing to help all of us children. We are a vagabond family, and I can’t count how often Alan drove us to and from airports, fed our cats, watered our plants, loved us unconditionally.
Now when I return from a trip, I am caught unaware when I search the waiting crowd, and don’t find Alan in his navy-blue coat, seated on a bench, book in hand, warm blue eyes welcoming me home.
Genni Gunn is Alan’s daughter.
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