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The dad I never knew Add to ...

On a cold November evening in 1957, a troubled young man left a tavern and headed home with a six-pack of beer beside him in the front seat.

He might have fallen asleep. He might have simply had an unsteady hand on the wheel. How my 32-year-old father, Russell, managed to kill himself may never be known.

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What is known is that his reckless act nearly destroyed my mother Vera, who was left a widow in her early 30s with three children under 5.

The accident took place in front of the local public school. When the car left the road it rolled, tossing my father out the door and pinning him underneath. Neighbours tried in desperation to save him, but he suffocated before they could lift the car off his crushed chest.

To make matters worse for the family, my Uncle Doug, a tow-truck driver, was summoned to the scene by police. Uncle Doug realized quickly that this was no routine call - the victim was his younger brother. It was left to Uncle Doug to deliver the news to my mother, who was already fuming at her husband for being late for dinner yet another night.

 

Losing a husband is never an easy pill to swallow, but losing her husband in this manner was particularly bitter for my mother, who was forced to sit through the humiliation of an inquest.

For Vera, life after Russell was no easier. There was no veteran's pension or insurance policy, no coffin draped in the Canadian flag. There was only the prospect of a life of poverty, hand-me-downs and welfare cheques.

The wife of a drunk driver has no friends, only family. Even the church turned its back on my mother, who could not afford to pay its yearly stipend.

My grandparents helped out as best they could. I remember spending good times with my grandfather while my mother plunged into a severe depression.

And I remember another thing. There was always a small picture of my father perched on the television, his young face smiling for the camera, in the army uniform he sported so proudly. Always a picture, but rarely a mention of his name or how he had met his fate.

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Just a year before my father's death, things were looking up for the Simpson family.

Russell was coming home after years of serving his country, first in the Second World War, then in peacekeeping.

My mother had suffered a nervous breakdown while he was away and he was able to secure a discharge from the service to return home to her and my brothers, who were 4 and 3 at the time. Another baby came soon after, a girl whom my father called Rosalie after a beloved Scottish cousin.

My father returned home in hopes of pursuing a career as a civilian mechanic, but he found it difficult to leave the war behind.

He relived the horrors in his head at night and tried to drink them away by day. There was no treatment back then for post-traumatic stress disorder, only booze to soothe a troubled soul. Perhaps only death could bring him peace.

I was eight months old when my dad died, just a happy little child who would not feel her father's absence for a few years.

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By the time I was old enough to miss my dad, his story had been rewritten by the family. He was not a sorry drunken soldier in the new version. He was a war hero with a strong singing voice and a winning personality, a missing man with a chest full of medals.

It was only years later, after my mother died, that I learned the truth about his troubled past. One of my aunts told me the story that my mother could not.

For years, I had been living in the land of secrets, surrounded by sad people and a distant mother. The real story explained so much.

It explained why my mother was so fretful and worried all the time, why she would drop me off at church but would never go in, and why she never trusted another man.

I think about my father every year about this time, on the anniversary of his death. I see him in the faces of those veterans who march on Remembrance Day. I think about my mother, too, and all the women and children who become collateral damage when a country goes to war. I pray for us all.

Rose Simpson lives in Ottawa.

Illustration by Paddy Molloy.

 

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